Amid growing international concern over the Israel Defense Forces’ plans to conquer the Gaza Strip’s southernmost city of Rafah, Israel has drawn up an evacuation plan for civilians along the coast, according to a Tuesday report.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the plan envisions 15 sites containing 25,000 tents each across Gaza, running from the southern edge of Gaza City down to the Al Mawasi area north of Rafah.
Israel has presented the plan to Egypt in recent days, the report said.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that there are several plans under discussion, none of which have been approved yet.
Rafah, which sits on the Gaza-Egypt border, is the target of the next IDF offensive, according to Israeli leaders. The US and regional allies have warned of the humanitarian dangers of the IDF moving into the city, in which more than 1 million Gazan refugees are sheltering.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to provide “safe passage” for civilians out of Rafah without specifying where the large number of people massed near the border with Egypt would go.
Citing Egyptian officials, the WSJ report said that Israel expects the camps, which would include medical facilities, to be funded by the US and Arab partners.
Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the UNs Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, said on Tuesday that it had not been informed of any Israeli evacuation plan and was not a part of it.
“Where are you going to evacuate people to, as no place is safe across the Gaza Strip, the north is shattered, riddled with unexploded weapons, it’s pretty much unlivable,” she said.
“Enough is enough. Any further escalation would be absolutely apocalyptic.”
The United Nations “will not be party” to any forced displacement of Palestinians currently living in Rafah, the spokesman for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the previous day.
Netanyahu reportedly believes that, in the face of international pressure, Israel only has one month left to complete its operation in Rafah, aimed at dismantling the Hamas terror group’s remaining operational battalions in Gaza.
According to a Channel 12 news report, the prime minister recently told the small war cabinet that the operation will need to be completed before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.
Last week, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Netanyahu had directed the IDF to draft a plan for evacuating the civilians in Rafah so that the operation could move forward.
The PMO announcement came amid US warnings that Israel has not conducted the pre-operational planning necessary to ensure that civilians will be kept out of harm’s way and that failure to do so risks “disaster.”
On Tuesday German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who will visit Israel on Wednesday, voiced concern about the looming offensive. She said Israel had the right to defend itself against terrorism, but this did not mean the expulsion of the population.
The Canadian and British foreign ministers also expressed concern over a Rafah operation on Monday.
US President Joe Biden is coming under growing domestic pressure to push Israel on a ceasefire in its war with Hamas, now in its fifth month, though he and other US officials have continued to stand behind Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the terror group’s devastating October 7 offensive.
On Tuesday, Biden’s National Security spokesman, John Kirby, stressed that the US “never said that they can’t go into Rafah to remove Hamas. Hamas remains a viable threat to the Israeli people. And the Israelis and the IDF, absolutely, are going to continue operations against their leadership and their infrastructure, as they should. We don’t want to see another October 7.”
Rather, Kirby continued, “What we’ve said is we don’t believe that it’s advisable to go in in a major way in Rafah without a proper, executable, effective, and credible plan for the safety of the more than a million Palestinians that are taking refuge in Rafah. They’ve left the north, and they certainly went south out of Khan Younis to try to get out of the fighting. So, Israel has an obligation to make sure that they can protect them.”
As Israel was making plans to evacuate civilians from Rafah, senior Israeli officials were in Cairo on Tuesday for talks on a framework that would see the release of hostages held by terror groups in Gaza and achieve an extended truce. Senior officials from the United States, Egypt, and Qatar are also in the Egyptian capital to resume negotiations on a three-phase deal that would include a six-week pause in fighting.
An agreement would see respite following four months of war in Gaza triggered by Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, when terrorists slaughtered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 253 hostages to Gaza while committing brutal atrocities.
In response, Israel launched an extensive military campaign aimed at eliminating the terrorist organization and returning the hostages.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says the Palestinian death toll in the Strip since the start of the war has reached 28,064 people. The figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 10,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.
Reuters contributed to this report.