US: We don't want Gazans evacuated unless they're going home

Israel said readying to evacuate Palestinians from Rafah ahead of planned offensive

Egyptian officials briefed on Israeli plans tell WSJ that IDF will gradually move into Hamas’s last major Gaza stronghold, with fighting expected to last at least 6 weeks

Illustrative: Smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 21, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Illustrative: Smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 21, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces is readying to evacuate Palestinian civilians from Gaza’s southernmost city in Rafah ahead of its planned offensive there against Hamas, according to a report Monday.

Citing Israeli and Egyptian officials, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Israeli plans envision that the first two to three weeks of the operation will consist of evacuating civilians, in coordination with the US, Egypt and other Arab countries.

The evacuation will reportedly involve moving civilians to the nearby city of Khan Younis, among other areas in Gaza, where Israel will set up shelters with tents, food and medical facilities.

After that, the officials said the IDF will gradually move troops into Rafah and target areas where it believes Hamas leaders and operatives are hiding.

Israel has said Rafah, where Hamas’s four intact battalions are deployed, remains the terror group’s last major stronghold in the Strip after the IDF operated in the north and center of the Palestinian enclave. It also believes that many of the remaining 129 hostages kidnapped in the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities are being held in Rafah.

The Egyptian officials said the fighting in Rafah is expected to last at least six weeks, though the timing of the operation remains uncertain.

An Israeli security official quoted in the report said the IDF will “have a very tight operational plan because it’s very complex there.”

“There’s a humanitarian response that’s happening at the same time,” the official added.

Displaced Palestinians celebrate during a wedding ceremony at a school housing displaced Gazans in the city of Rafah on April 19, 2024. (AFP)

The report came as US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said, “We don’t want to see Palestinians evacuated from Rafah unless it is to return to their homes.”

The Biden administration has repeatedly expressed its opposition to a mass IDF invasion of Rafah, though this language from the State Department appeared to be new.

“We don’t think there’s any effective way to evacuate 1.4 million Palestinians. There’s no way to conduct an operation in Rafah that would not lead to inordinate civilian harm and severely hamper the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Miller said.

At other times, US officials have indicated that they’d be prepared to accept an IDF offensive in Rafah if Israel did manage to safely evacuate the civilians there and care for their humanitarian needs. In his latest comments, Miller rejected the notion of any possibility that the US could support a major Rafah invasion.

“We do want to see people able to leave Rafah to return to their homes — if they exist — and to their neighborhoods and to begin rebuilding their homes. We want to see the Palestinian people in Gaza start to restart their lives and rebuild their lives and ultimately bring this conflict to a close,” he said.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller answers questions during a news briefing at the State Department on July 18, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Washington has argued that a large-scale military offensive in Rafah would put the Palestinians sheltering there at risk, wreak havoc on Gaza’s main humanitarian hub located in southern Gaza, and further isolate Israel internationally without actually boosting its security.

Instead, it is pushing for Israel to pursue more targeted operations against Hamas leaders in Rafah while coordinating with Cairo to secure the Egypt-Gaza border, creating an underground wall to prevent weapons smuggling and choke off the remaining terror elements in the area, a US official told The Times of Israel.

Israel argues that it cannot defeat Hamas without launching a major offensive in Rafah to dismantle the terror group’s remaining battalions there. It says it will only launch the invasion after it evacuates the civilians in the city, ensures that they’ll be able to continue receiving humanitarian aid upon relocation and coordinates with Egypt, which borders Rafah and has expressed significant alarm over a potential operation.

Last week, Israeli and US officials held a second virtual meeting about the potential IDF operation in Rafah, which ended with the administration still remaining unconvinced of Israel’s plans to evacuate Palestinians and ensure they receive humanitarian assistance.

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