IDF ready to move into Gaza’s Rafah, awaiting government okay, says senior official

Israeli generals said to meet Egyptian counterparts to coordinate evacuation of civilians from southern city, seen as last major Hamas redoubt in Strip

A makeshift tent camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 4, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
A makeshift tent camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 4, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces has conducted all necessary preparations for a major ground offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah and can launch an operation the moment it gets government approval, a senior Israeli defense official said Wednesday.

Israel deems Rafah the last Hamas bastion in the Gaza Strip and is poised to evacuate Palestinian civilians from there and assault Hamas holdouts, the unnamed official told the Reuters news agency, which didn’t specify whether the source was connected to the IDF.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government told the agency that Israel was “moving ahead” with a ground operation, but gave no timeline.

Meanwhile, multiple Israeli reports indicated that top Israeli security officials visited Egypt Wednesday to coordinate the planned offensive in Rafah.

The officials included IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, according to Channel 13 news. Axios reported that the officials had met Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and Chief of Staff Osama Askar, amid fears in Cairo that an offensive could create a humanitarian catastrophe that will drive tens of thousands of Gazans to breach the border and enter Egypt.

Egypt, which Rafah abuts, has said it warned Israel against pushing into the city. Such a move, Egypt’s State Information Service said, “would lead to massive human massacres, losses [and] widespread destruction.”

File: Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, center, speaks to IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi, right, during a hostage rescue operation in southern Gaza’s Rafah, February 12, 2024. (Shin Bet)

Israel says victory in the Gaza war, which began with Hamas’s cross-border massacre and kidnapping spree on October 7, is impossible without taking Rafah, crushing the Palestinian terror group and recovering any hostages there.

The IDF said earlier Wednesday that it was readying to deploy two reserve brigades for missions in the Gaza Strip, apparently as part of its plan to remove Hamas from Rafah.

The 679th “Yiftah” Armored Brigade and the 2nd “Carmeli” Infantry Brigade, which had been operating on the northern border, were set to take responsibility for areas of central Gaza that have remained under Israeli military control since troops largely pulled back from other areas of the Strip earlier this month, according to an Army Radio report.

The move will free up Nahal Brigade troops currently holding the central corridor to join the rest of the 162nd Division in preparing for future operations, including planned offensives in Rafah and central Gaza, military sources said.

Troops operate in Gaza in an undated photo released by the military for publication on April 24, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli officials said Hamas has six remaining battalions in the Gaza Strip, including four in the southern city of Rafah: Yabna (South); Shaboura (North); Tel Sultan (West); and East Rafah. Two more Hamas battalions remain in central Gaza, in the Nuseirat and Deir al-Balah camps.

The IDF has so far operated across northern Gaza and Gaza City, in some parts of central Gaza, and in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, saying it has dismantled the 18 Hamas battalions there.

The fighting has pushed an estimated million displaced Gazan civilians into Rafah, with the international community, including the United States, warning that an offensive in the city could significantly worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis.

“I have to make a decision whether to leave Rafah because my mother and I are afraid an invasion could happen suddenly and we won’t get time to escape,” said Aya, 30, who has been living temporarily in the city with her family in a school.

She said that some families recently moved to a refugee camp in coastal Al-Mawasi, but their tents caught fire when tank shells landed nearby. “Where do we go?”

Girls peer through the hole left by a destroyed window from a building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 24, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

While not discussing specific battle plans, the Israeli military has increasingly signaled readiness to move on Rafah, after pushing off the offensive for over a month to allow for truce talks aimed at freeing the 133 hostages that are believed to still be held in the Strip and to hear out US concerns about its plans for fighting in the city.

“Hamas was hit hard in the northern sector. It was also hit hard in the center of the Strip. And soon it will be hit hard in Rafah, too,” Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, commander of the 162nd Division operating in Gaza, told the Kan public broadcaster in an interview aired on Tuesday.

“Hamas should know that when the IDF goes into Rafah, it would do best to raise its hands in surrender. Rafah will not be the Rafah of today… There won’t be munitions there. And there won’t be hostages there,” he said.

Israel has procured tens of thousands of tents for Palestinian civilians it intends to evacuate from Rafah in the coming weeks, Israeli sources said on Wednesday.

After weeks of talks with the US about civilian safeguards, the Defense Ministry has bought 40,000 tents, each with the capacity for 10 to 12 people, for Palestinians relocated from Rafah, Israeli government sources said.

Video circulated online appeared to show rows of square white tents going up in Khan Younis, a city some 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Rafah. Images from satellite company Maxar showing multiple tent camps on Khan Younis land that had been vacant on April 7.

This handout satellite image courtesy of Maxar Technologies shows tent camps for displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024. (Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies/AFP)

Government sources said Netanyahu’s war cabinet planned to meet in the coming two weeks to authorize civilian evacuations — expected to take around a month — as the first stage of the Rafah sweep. The Defense Ministry and Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment.

Israel believes Hamas leaders and many operatives are hiding in Rafah, and also that many of the remaining 129 hostages kidnapped in the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities are being held in the city.

Most Popular
read more: