Israel ramps up strikes on Rafah as US warns major offensive would be ‘disaster’

Egypt reiterates concerns Israeli campaign in Gaza’s southernmost city could cause mass Palestinian effort to flee Strip; officer says Hamas forces in Khan Younis largely destroyed

This picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Younis during Israeli bombardment on February 8, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
This picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Younis during Israeli bombardment on February 8, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Israeli forces stepped up airstrikes on Rafah Thursday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the military offensive into the southernmost Gaza city, where over a million Palestinians have crowded into amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

The strikes came as Israeli forces continued to operate in Khan Younis, to the north of Rafah, with an officer saying Hamas forces in the city had largely been destroyed even as the terror group’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar remained on the loose despite intensive efforts to track him down.

Israeli planes bombed parts of Rafah on Thursday morning, residents said, killing at least 11 people in strikes on two houses, numbers that could not be confirmed. Tanks also shelled some areas in eastern Rafah, intensifying the residents’ fears of an imminent ground assault.

In Washington, the United States issued strident warnings against Israel expanding a large-scale offensive into the city, warning of catastrophic consequences unless civilians sheltering in the city were accounted for.

US State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said the US had “yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” adding: “To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought in an area” where one million people are sheltering “would be a disaster.”

The White House issued a similar warning.

“Any major military operation in Rafah at this time, under these circumstances, with more than a million – probably more like a million and a half – Palestinians who are seeking refuge and have been seeking refuge in Rafah without due consideration for their safety would be a disaster, and we would not support it,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

Netanyahu said Wednesday he ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, after rejecting Hamas’s “delusional demands” in hostage deal talks. Among Hamas’s conditions were an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and ending the fighting, nonstarters for Israel as they would leave the terror group intact as the enclave’s ruler after the war, which was sparked by the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Jerusalem would not put forward a counter-proposal to what he also called Hamas’s “delusional” demands, but rather was seeking to pressure Qatar, via the US, to lean on Hamas to soften its terms.

The US, along with mediators Egypt and Qatar, has continued to push for a hostage release agreement that would be accompanied by a truce, with a Hamas delegation arriving in Cairo for negotiations. Egypt pressured Israel to also send representatives but Jerusalem refused to do so, according to Channel 12 news.

International aid organizations have warned that any major operation in Rafah would compound what they say is already a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Israel says it takes steps to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas terrorists of hiding among civilians, including at school shelters and hospitals, leading to more civilian deaths. Hamas has denied this.

Due to the conflict, more than half of the Strip’s population has fled to Rafah, on the mostly sealed border with Egypt, which is also the main entry point for humanitarian aid. Egypt has warned that any ground operation there or mass displacement across the border would undermine its four-decade-old peace treaty with Israel.

Palestinians walk along a crowded main street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

A spokesperson for Egypt’s foreign ministry said Thursday that Cairo was concerned at the potential for a mass effort by Gazans to escape across the border when the IDF expands operations in Rafah.

In an interview with the Egyptian news channel Al Ghad, Ahmed Abu Zeid said Egypt sees the situation in Gaza’s southern Rafah region as “unbearable and catastrophic.”

“Continuing Israeli strikes on densely populated areas will create an unlivable reality. The scenario of mass displacement is a possibility. The Egyptian position on this has been very clear and straightforward: We are against this policy, and we will not allow it,” he said.

Images in recent weeks circulating on social media have shown Egypt apparently fortifying its defenses at the border, with additional barbed wire and walls.

A shepherd herds sheep near the border fence with Egypt in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip near a makeshift tent camp for displaced Palestinians, on January 24, 2024. (AFP)

According to the Israeli official, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern over Israel expanding fighting to the southern Gaza city of Rafah during talks with Netanyahu and the war cabinet a day earlier.

The official stressed that there would be “no compromise” on toppling Hamas militarily and politically, which would mean operating in Rafah.

A second Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Thursday that the operation in Rafah will not be a large-scale assault by a full division like a current operation in Khan Younis, but will instead be organized around targeted pinpoint raids.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, February 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

In Khan Younis, a senior military officer said troops were “peeling back” Hamas’s infrastructure.

The officer told Reuters that the Khan Younis operations to destroy Hamas, and retrieve any hostages who might be held there, would continue “whether it will take two hours, or two days, or two weeks or two months – or even more.”

Israeli troops have killed 2,000 gunmen, wounded 4,000 and captured “hundreds” more, the officer told Reuters on condition of anonymity. That had largely demolished Hamas’s Khan Younis Brigade, whose pre-war strength was five battalions, he said.

This could not be independently verified. Hamas has seldom published its deployments or losses.

“The Khan Younis Brigade was the most powerful that Hamas had, with a very dominant commander,” the officer said. “We are peeling it back, layer by layer.”

Attacks by Palestinian gunmen were increasingly scattershot, suggesting a loss of command and control, the officer said. Hamas says its ambushes continue to inflict Israeli casualties.

A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024 shows a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza. (IDF)

Khan Younis is the hometown of Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, mastermind of the October 7 murder and kidnapping spree in southern Israel that sparked the war.

“I assess beyond a doubt that he is in Khan Younis – along with some of the remaining Hamas leadership,” the officer said.

The Kan public broadcaster reported Thursday that Israeli security officials believe Sinwar has been out of touch with Hamas’s chain of command for a number of weeks and was not involved in the final framework for a hostage deal that Hamas presented to Egypt and Qatar. According to the report, Israel assesses that Sinwar did not receive updates about the framework Israel hammered out in Paris, which was then presented to Hamas negotiators.

The Hamas proposal, which was in response to an outline sent last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators and backed by the United States and Israel, included a clause that read, “subject to the approval of Hamas leadership in Gaza.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday repeated his assessment that Sinwar is “on the run” and revealed further details about recovered documents and other materials that Israel says show Hamas’s direct links and coordination with Iran.

According to Gallant, among the objects troops discovered were cash-stuffed envelopes sent by Iran, including payments directly to Sinwar.

“There is clear evidence of funds that were transferred, when they arrived and to who they were transferred. And of course, what we see is that Yahya Sinwar takes care of himself first and foremost,” Gallant said while touring a Military Intelligence base.

“Out of millions of dollars, one million goes to [Sinwar]. Out of tens of millions — he puts what he needs into his pocket. Take for example this envelope specially designated to Yahya Sinwar and his family — it contains cash — twenty thousand dollars,” the defense minister charged while holding up the envelope inside a plastic folder.

“Hamas is fighting and conducting terrorism, while Yahya Sinwar is celebrating with his family. This is going to end. Yahya Sinwar turned from the leader of a terrorist organization into a fugitive.”

This handout photo shows Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (C) touring a Military Intelligence base in central Israel on February 8, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops.

The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. Hamas is also holding two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively, along with the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed in 2014.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed Monday that at least 31 of the hostages held in Gaza are no longer alive, including Shaul and Goldin. The New York Times said another 20 are also feared dead, but the IDF did not confirm this.

Israel launched its punishing campaign against Hamas after the terror group led an unprecedented assault into southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, and kidnapping 253 to Gaza, while committing brutal atrocities including mass sexual violence.

More than 27,800 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. These figures cannot be independently verified, are believed to include fatalities caused by failed rocket fire by Gaza terror groups, and do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed 10,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza, as well as 1,000 terrorists in Israel on October 7.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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