Netanyahu said to believe Israel has 1 month to finish Rafah operation amid global ire

After PM directs IDF to draw up plans for southern Gaza, chief of staff reportedly says government needs to first decide what to do with over 1 million Gazans sheltering there

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and IDF chief Herzi Halevi at the start of a security cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, November 16, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and IDF chief Herzi Halevi at the start of a security cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, November 16, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly believes that given international pressure, Israel only has one month left to complete its upcoming operation in Rafah, aimed at dismantling the Hamas terror group’s remaining operative battalions in Gaza.

According to a Channel 12 news report on Friday evening, the prime minister recently told the small war cabinet that the operation in Gaza’s southernmost city, where more than half of the coastal enclave’s 2.3 million residents are sheltering, will need to be completed before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.

The assessment was reportedly made during a discussion about the pending Rafah operation, during which IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi told Netanyahu that the Israel Defense Forces was ready to operate, but that it needed the government to first decide what it wanted to do with the displaced Gazans sheltering there.

The report came as US President Joe Biden was coming under growing domestic pressure to push Israel on a ceasefire in its war with Hamas, now in its fourth month, though he and other US officials have continued to stand behind Israel’s right to defend itself against the terror group.

However, the US has expressed increasing concern over the civilian death toll, suffering and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, and the lack of clarity from Israel regarding the “day after” in Gaza.

The IDF chief of staff was also quoted by Channel 12 as saying that the military also needs to know the government’s plans for the Philadelphi Route, the 14-kilometer security road along Gaza’s border with Egypt.

The latter issue needs to be resolved to maintain cooperation with Egypt, given Cairo’s concerns about any Israeli operation along the border and amid fears that Palestinians fleeing Rafah could try and cross into Egypt. Channel 12 claimed that Netanyahu has dragged his feet on reaching decisions on either issue.

Earlier on Friday, 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 IDF operation could move forward. But, Channel 12 suggested that the statement was little more than public posturing given that the army has already crafted such plans and is waiting for directives from the political echelon.

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)

“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Netanyahu’s office had said in the statement. “On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.”

The PMO announcement came amid US statements 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.”

The United Nations was similarly concerned, saying that Palestinian civilians in Rafah need to be protected, but that there should not be any forced mass displacement. “We’re extremely worried about the fate of civilians in Rafah,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday.

“What is clear is that people need to be protected, but we also do not want to see any forced displacement — forced mass displacement — of people, which is by definition against their will,” Dujarric said. “We would not support in any way forced displacement, which goes against international law.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also voiced concern for civilians in Rafah on Friday: “The unprecedented density of Rafah’s population makes it nearly impossible to protect civilians in the event of ground attacks.”

“The congestion in Rafah has reached a point where normal routes are blocked by tents set up by families seeking any flat, clean space available,” the UN body added.

A woman and children sit outside tents sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 250 hostages of all ages, mostly civilians, many amid horrific acts of brutality.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and launched a wide-scale military operation to destroy the terror group’s military and governance capabilities and return the hostages.

Meanwhile, the IDF on Friday confirmed a Palestinian Red Crescent Society report that troops had raided a hospital in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, which is the focus of the IDF’s current thrust.

“The occupation (Israeli) forces stormed Al-Amal hospital and started searching it. We’re finding it difficult to communicate with our crews inside the hospital,” said a statement from the PRCS which runs the facility.

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)

The IDF told AFP that the operation was carried out “based on intelligence indicating Hamas is conducting terrorist activities” in the hospital. “A precise sweep and clear operation to locate terrorists and dismantle terrorist infrastructure in the vicinity has commenced,” the army said.

Later on Friday, the PRCS said the IDF had arrested eight of its team members at the hospital, including “four doctors, as well as four wounded individuals and five patients’ companions.”

Al-Amal has been caught in fierce fighting between IDF troops and Hamas operatives, with the Red Crescent reporting “intense artillery shelling and heavy gunfire” continuing around the hospital on Thursday.

The medical organization has in recent days made repeated pleas for supplies and protection, reporting severe shortages of oxygen, medicines and fuel to power the hospital.

The PRCS also claimed in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that IDF troops “stole money from PRCS, employees, patients and companions, as well as their personal belongings.”

Earlier this week, the Red Crescent said some 8,000 people who had sought shelter at Al-Amal and its nearby Khan Younis headquarters were evacuated. Around 40 displaced people, 80 patients and 100 staff remained following the evacuation, the PRCS said Monday.

Israel has repeatedly said Hamas was using civilians as human shields, including by locating operations bases under hospitals, launching rockets from schools and shelters, building tunnels shafts under children’s bedrooms, storing weapons in and around schools and mosques, and embedding itself within civilians amid the ongoing war.

Israeli soldiers show the media an underground tunnel found underneath Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, November 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano, File)

Captured Hamas terrorists have confirmed some of the human shield claims, explaining for example that Hamas knows Israel will not bomb hospitals, medical centers and facilities.

The UN said on Wednesday that there are no fully functioning hospitals left in the Palestinian territory, while just over a third of them are working at limited capacity.

Health facilities have been overwhelmed by the scale of casualties, with more than 67,000 people wounded and at least 27,947 people killed, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory. These 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.

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