Top defense officials said to try to calm Egyptian counterparts on Rafah attack plans

Reports swirl as Gaza’s southernmost city emerges as imminent target of IDF campaign; officials reportedly tell Egyptian security establishment they will coordinate with Cairo

Egyptian military personnel stand alert at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza Strip, in Rafah, Egypt, October 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)
Egyptian military personnel stand alert at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza Strip, in Rafah, Egypt, October 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

Senior Israeli security officials were reportedly working around the clock Sunday to calm Egyptian concerns about a looming Israeli military offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, as US President Joe Biden warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to press ahead with the campaign without a “credible” plan to protect civilians.

Channel 12 news reported Sunday evening that senior officials from the Mossad spy agency, the Shin Bet security agency and the Israel Defense Forces had been in contact with their Egyptian counterparts to allay their concerns after Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against Hamas.

Over half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has fled to Rafah to escape the fighting in other areas, packed into sprawling tent camps and United Nation-run shelters near the border. Egypt fears a mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

The Rafah campaign is a crucial goal in the war for Israel as it serves as a smuggling haven for the enclave’s terror groups.

On Sunday morning, two Egyptian security sources said that Cairo had deployed some 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai within the past two weeks, as part of a series of measures to bolster security on its border with Gaza.

Channel 12 also reported that the security officials told their Egyptian contacts that Israel would not make any unilateral moves and that they would work in coordination with Cairo.

The reports came days after Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt had threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if it sends troops into Rafah, where Cairo fears fighting could force the closure of the besieged territory’s main aid supply route. There were also reports that Egypt had warned Hamas that it must reach a hostage-for-ceasefire deal with Israel within two weeks, or Israel would move into Rafah.

Palestinians stand by the border fence with Egypt in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 24, 2024. (AFP)

On Sunday evening, Hebrew media outlets reported that IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi told the cabinet that he had already approved an operation in Rafah three times, and that the military was prepared to carry it out whenever it receives the green light from the government.

Channel 12 also reported, without citing sources, that the IDF would prefer that Gazan civilians currently sheltering in Rafah only be allowed to move to the north of the Strip as part of a hostage release deal. If not, according to the report, the military has other ways to operate in Rafah, though none were specified.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a frequent cabinet critic of the chief of staff, argued with Halevi on Sunday over the military preventing protesters against aid to Gaza from reaching Kerem Shalom, and over humanitarian aid more broadly.

The area had been declared a closed military zone on Sunday, making it illegal for civilians to be there after days of protests by activists hindering the entry of goods through the crossing.

Israeli protesters, including relatives of hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas, wave national flags and hold placards during a demonstration aimed at blocking aid trucks from entering the Palestinian territory, on the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the southern Gaza Strip on January 29, 2024. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Earlier in the day, dozens of protesters were removed from the Kerem Shalom Crossing after setting up tents to block the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

In recent weeks, groups of right-wing protesters have blocked the crossing in an attempt to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching Gaza’s civilian population while some 136 Israelis remain in Hamas captivity.

Biden queried Netanyahu on the Kerem Shalom crossing when the two spoke on Sunday, for the first time since the US president called Israel’s Gaza campaign “over the top.”

War erupted in Gaza with Hamas’s October 7 massacres, which saw thousands of terrorists burst across the border by air, land and sea, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping over 250 to Gaza, mostly civilians. In response, Israel launched an extensive military campaign against the terrorist organization, and the government initially said no aid would be allowed into Gaza.

By the end of October, however, Israel was allowing humanitarian aid to enter the Strip through the Rafah crossing on the Gaza border with Egypt. Netanyahu has since said multiple times that without minimal aid being given to Gaza, Israel would be unable to complete its objectives in the war, due to risks such as diseases spreading in the Strip.

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid line up at the Rafah Border Crossing, Egypt, on the way to Gaza, November 19, 2023. (AP/Amr Nabil, File)

As part of a temporary truce deal in November, 105 hostages were released, and Israel promised to up the number of trucks carrying aid to 200 a day, but could not keep up with the demand with only one crossing open. As a result, Netanyahu announced in mid-December that Israel would reopen Kerem Shalom to allow more aid into the Strip.

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. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Agencies and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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