IDF presents plan for evacuation of Rafah, gets approval for aid to south Gaza

Prime Minister’s Office does not provide details of proposal presented to war cabinet, says humanitarian supplies will be provided ‘in a way that will prevent looting’

Palestinians crowd a market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Feb. 22, 2024 (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)
Palestinians crowd a market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Feb. 22, 2024 (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

The Israel Defense Forces presented the war cabinet with its plan for the evacuation of Palestinian civilians from potential combat zones in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah and its operational strategy going forward, the Prime Minister’s Office said Sunday.

Foreign governments and aid organizations have repeatedly expressed fears that a ground operation in Rafah would inflict mass civilian casualties.

Over a million Palestinians — most of them displaced from elsewhere — have converged on the last Gazan city untouched by Israel’s ground offensive against terror group Hamas.

It is also the entry point for desperately needed aid, brought in via neighboring Egypt.

The army “presented the war cabinet with a plan for evacuating the population from the areas of fighting in the Gaza Strip, with the upcoming operational plan,” the PMO said in a statement.

The statement did not give any details about how or where the civilians would be moved.

A United Nations car drives past trucks delivering humanitarian aid that entered Gaza by truck through the Kerem Shalom border crossing in the southern part of the Strip on February 17, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In addition, the PMO said the cabinet approved the provision of humanitarian aid to south Gaza “in a way that will prevent the looting that occurred in the north of the Gaza Strip and other areas.”

The three-member war cabinet is made up of Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Minister Benny Gantz, alongside several observers.

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas led a devastating attack on Israel in which 1,200 people were murdered, most of them civilians. The terrorists also abducted 253 people of all ages who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

Israel responded with a military offensive to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, destroy the terror group and free the hostages, over half of whom remain in captivity.

So far, the military campaign has seen the IDF claim that it has dismantled Hamas’s combat effectiveness in most of Gaza.

Israel is now pressing ahead with plans for a military offensive in Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza and also where more than half the territory’s population of 2.3 million have sought refuge.

Palestinians rescue survivors after an Israeli strike on a building in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 24, 2024. (Hatem Ali/AP)

Humanitarian groups warn of a catastrophe, and the US and other allies have said Israel must avoid harming civilians. Under US pressure, Israel’s political and military leaders have said the operation will not begin until the safety of noncombatants has been ensured.

Across from overcrowded Rafah, neighboring Egypt has kept its border closed, saying it will not help facilitate any operation to push Palestinians out of Gaza.

But satellite images show it has built a walled enclosure next to Gaza, in what is feared to be an effort to brace for the possible arrival of large numbers of refugees.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US media on Sunday that an Israeli military operation in Rafah could be “delayed somewhat” if a deal for a weekslong truce between Israel and Hamas is reached, as mediators work to secure an outline for a pause in fighting and a release of hostages. But he vowed the offensive “will happen.”

“It has to be done because total victory is our goal and total victory is within reach — not months away, weeks away, once we begin the operation,” he told CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

Netanyahu confirmed that a deal is in the works but did not provide details.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC Sunday morning that President Joe Biden hadn’t been briefed on the Rafah plan and said, “We believe that this operation should not go forward until or unless we see [a plan to protect civilians].”

Sullivan also confirmed to CNN on Sunday that representatives from Israel, the US, Egypt, and Qatar who met in Paris late last week “came to an understanding among the four of them about what the basic contours of a hostage deal for a temporary ceasefire would look like.”

Mediators have voiced hope that a temporary truce and a hostage-prisoner exchange can be secured before the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

Protesters demonstrate for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Hebrew-language media reported that mediators were making progress on an agreement for a temporary ceasefire and the release of dozens of hostages held captive in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel. Several Israeli media outlets, citing unnamed officials, said the war cabinet tacitly approved it.

Inside Israel, pressure has grown on Netanyahu from families of hostages demanding swifter action, and anti-government protests have restarted.

Other activists have attempted to block aid trucks from entering Gaza, saying supplies should only be provided if the remaining hostages are released.

Amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis, the main UN aid agency for Palestinians urged political action to avert famine in Gaza.

Dire food shortages in northern Gaza are “a man-made disaster” that can be mitigated, said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA. “Famine can still be avoided through genuine political will to grant access and protection to meaningful assistance,” he said.

The UN has said it faces restrictions, particularly on aid deliveries to northern Gaza.

Israeli demonstrators gather by the border fence with Egypt at the Nitzana border crossing in southern Israel on February 18, 2024, as they attempt to block humanitarian aid trucks from entering into Israel on their way to the Gaza Strip.(Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Israel, which checks all trucks entering Gaza from both crossings, has blamed the United Nations for the fall-off in deliveries and said it is prepared to speed up the clearance of aid. It has also called for the dismantling of UNRWA and its replacement with another entity after providing evidence that UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attacks, that Hamas has used the UN organization’s facilities for terror purposes, and amid claims that a number of the organization’s workers are linked to Hamas.

Inside Gaza, desperate residents have halted convoys to seize aid from trucks as footage has shown gunmen, believed to be members of Hamas, stealing trucks delivering humanitarian aid from Egypt.

Israel has also long said that Hamas stockpiled supplies and kept them from increasingly desperate civilians.

According to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry, Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed at least 29,692 people, mostly women and children with 92 deaths during bombings overnight Sunday. The figures cannot be confirmed and do not differentiate between Hamas fighters and civilians.

Israel says it has killed 12,000 Hamas and other terror group fighters since the start of the war.

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