Hamas warns of ‘tens of thousands’ of casualties

Report: Egypt warns Israel Rafah offensive may lead to suspension of peace treaty

Saudis also raise alarm; ground op pledged by Netanyahu in refugee-packed border city draws rebukes even from allies

Illustrative: Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip sit next to the border fence with Egypt in Rafah, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Illustrative: Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip sit next to the border fence with Egypt in Rafah, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have added their voices to a rising tide of criticism of a planned Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip’s southern city of Rafah, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that such a campaign was forthcoming.

Netanyahu announced Friday that he had ordered the Israeli military to present the cabinet with a plan to both evacuate the city’s civilian population — augmented by over one million refugees from the strip’s north and center — and destroy Hamas’s remaining battalions in the area.

According to Netanyahu, an assault on Rafah is critical to completing Israel’s stated war aim of dismantling Hamas. Earlier in the week, the premier rejected Hamas’s “delusional” terms for a hostage deal, which included a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Strip and the release of hundreds of terrorists serving life sentences.

“There is limited space and great risk in putting Rafah under further military escalation due to the growing number of Palestinians there,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday during a press briefing, warning that an escalation would have “dire consequences.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Egyptian officials warned the decades-long peace treaty between Egypt and Israel could be suspended if Israel Defense Forces’ troops enter Rafah, or if any of Rafah’s refugees are forced southward into the Sinai Peninsula.

In addition, Saudi Arabia — which has already conditioned normalization with Israel on an end to hostilities and steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state — issued a statement Saturday warning of “the extremely dangerous repercussions of storming and targeting the city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip,” given the city being “the last refuge for hundreds of thousands of people.”

Reuters reported that in an effort to forestall a massive influx of refugees, Egypt has over the past two weeks stationed some 40 tanks near its border with Gaza, after having reinforced the border wall since the beginning of hostilities, both structurally and with surveillance equipment.

On Friday, Israel’s Channel 12 also reported that IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi was opposed to Netanyahu’s plan for a swift Rafah campaign, saying that although the military is technically capable of such an operation, it would be unwise to undertake it without coordination with the Egyptians and plans for the city’s massive refugee population.

Netanyahu, according to the report, thinks the IDF would need to wrap up a Rafah campaign by the March 10 start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi at a security assessment at the military’s Northern Command, December 7, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The two Arab countries’ admonitions follow similar warnings by the United States, where senior figures in the administration of President Joe Biden have publicly decried the prospect of a Rafah offensive as a “disaster.” Philippe Lazzarini, chief of the UN’s aid agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, was also quoted by Reuters saying “there is a sense of growing anxiety, growing panic in Rafah because basically people have no idea where to go.”

Hamas, meanwhile, issued a statement Saturday saying military action in Rafah would have catastrophic repercussions that “may lead to tens of thousands of martyrs and injured,” for which the terror group would hold “the American administration, international community and the Israeli occupation” responsible.

The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught, in which thousands of gunmen led by the Palestinian terror group stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, while taking 253 hostages of all ages, committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Pledging to dismantle Hamas, Israel launched a war in the Gaza Strip, which has thus far claimed the lives of over 27,900 Palestinians, according to the Strip’s Hamas-ruled health ministry. The figure, which cannot be independently verified, does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, of whom the IDF claims to have killed over 10,000.

At the outset of the war, Israel ordered residents of northern Gaza to flee southward. The evacuation orders have since expanded to some two-thirds of the Strip, where Rafah is the southernmost city, bordering Egypt.

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