With truce talks seemingly stuck, Israel said planning Rafah incursion in April or May

Pro-Hezbollah newspaper says offensive will come after Ramadan and will last 4-8 weeks; Israel reportedly vows to notify Cairo in advance of an IDF operation into Philadelphi Route

Palestinians check the rubble of buildings that were destroyed following overnight Israeli strikes in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 27, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Palestinians check the rubble of buildings that were destroyed following overnight Israeli strikes in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 27, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Following the apparent failure of the latest round of negotiations in Qatar, Israel is not willing to make any further concessions to Hamas and is gearing up for a ground operation in Rafah, a Lebanese newspaper reported Wednesday.

The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily, citing Egyptian sources who were said to have been in contact with Israel Defense Forces officials, reported that the expected offensive would come after Eid al-Fitr — the three-day holiday that follows Ramadan and ends around April 12 — or in early May at the latest.

The ground incursion inside the last bastion of Hamas in the Gaza Strip would last from four to eight weeks, the sources said, and would be accompanied by an evacuation of the civilian population sheltering in Rafah, which amounts to about 1.5 million people, toward the center of the Strip along specific routes and at specific times, announced to civilians in each area of the city in advance.

The mass evacuation would be monitored from the ground and the air to ensure that no Hamas fighters or Israeli hostages are hidden among the Gazan civilians, the Egyptian officials said.

Four Hamas battalions remain in Rafah, and it is believed that Hamas leadership and at least some of the hostages — 130 of those kidnapped on October 7 remain in Gaza, not all of them alive — are in the city bordering Egypt.

Cairo expressed its deep concerns over an IDF operation in the Rafah area, noting that it could lead to a further escalation not only in Gaza, but in the whole region, Al-Akhbar reported.

Displaced Palestinians next to tents in Al-Shaboura camp, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 26, 2024 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel reportedly vowed to notify the Egyptians in advance of an IDF incursion into the Philadelphi corridor, which runs west of Rafah along the border between Gaza and Egypt.

The Lebanese paper also reported that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi refused a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a direct line to remain in contact.

Additionally, it claimed that negotiations are underway under the auspices of UAE mediation to bring medication to Israeli hostages in exchange for large amounts of medical aid to be allowed into the Strip.

Netanyahu and the Biden administration have been locked in a growing public spat over a potential ground operation in Rafah.

The US State Department said Tuesday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored in a Washington meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that alternatives exist to a ground invasion of Rafah that would both better ensure Israel’s security and protect Palestinian civilians.

A plan to send a senior Israeli delegation to Washington to discuss a Rafah offensive was scrapped by Netanyahu after the US abstained from a UN Security Council vote on a resolution calling for a Gaza ceasefire, ensuring it would pass.

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, former Hamas politburo head Khaled Mashaal said that Israeli hostages will remain captive until Israel halts hostilities, withdraws its troops from Gaza, allows displaced civilians to return to their homes, and ends a blockade on the Strip, adding that the terror group will not budge but indicating it is continuing to negotiate with Israel.

Speaking at a women’s event in Jordan, Mashaal said that Hamas is waging a “negotiating battle that is no less fierce” than its armed fight to achieve a halt of the Israeli “aggression.” He seemed to imply that the group is preparing for an intensification of Israeli operations at the end of Ramadan, saying there are “threats” looming at the end of the holy Muslim month.

Mashaal said Hamas will keep on fighting on the ground, and urges Muslims around the world to support the struggle so that “their blood will mix with the blood of the people of Palestine.” He also called for financial donations for the people of Gaza.

Fighting at Shifa

Meanwhile, the IDF said Wednesday that its raid on Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital was ongoing, with the military saying troops killed dozens of gunmen and captured weapons over the past day.

Hundreds of members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been captured so far in the Shifa operation, which began early on March 18, according to the IDF. Israel has said those arrested at Shifa include several “very significant” senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that it is believed that the maternity ward in Shifa Hospital was used as Hamas propaganda headquarters. The IDF is expected to release photos from the ward to back up the assessment. On Monday, the army said Hamas gunmen were firing on troops from the maternity ward, among other medical facilities in the hospital.

International law stipulates that while a medical facility is a protected site in conflict, it loses that status if it is used for military activity. Israel has offered evidence Hamas uses such facilities as cover for terror purposes and says the group plunders humanitarian aid to take supplies for its fighters, depriving the civilian population.

Troops of the Navy’s Shayetet 13 commando unit operate at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, in a handout image published March 25, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Residents living nearby reported hearing explosions in and around Shifa and lines of smoke coming from buildings inside the medical facility.

“A war zone, this is how it looks in and around Al Shifa,” said Mohammad Jamal, 25, who lives 1 kilometer, less than a mile, away from the hospital.

“Explosions never stop, we see lines of smoke coming from inside, no one moves even in streets that are hundreds of meters away because of Israeli snipers on rooftops of buildings,” he said.

The Hamas-run health ministry said Israeli tanks and armored vehicles have also massed around Nasser Hospital, adding that shots were fired but no raid had been launched.

Tunnels, Hamas buildings targeted

In the south of the Strip, the IDF said additional Hamas operatives were killed during operations over the past day in southern Gaza’s al-Qarara and the al-Amal neighborhood in Khan Younis, where troops also captured caches of weapons.

The Israeli Air Force also targeted dozens of sites across the Gaza Strip, largely in support of forces maneuvering on the ground, the IDF said.

The IDF said the sites included tunnels and buildings used by Hamas gunmen, and other infrastructure.

Troops operate in Gaza in an undated handout image released for publication March 27, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

In central Gaza, the IDF said the Nahal Brigade killed several gunmen over the past day, including by calling in airstrikes.

The IDF also published footage showing a recent airstrike on what it said was a member of a terror group surveilling troops in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis.

According to the IDF, the operative was passing information on troop locations to other gunmen over a phone. The operative was spotted by the Givati Brigade, who called in the deadly drone strike against him, the IDF said.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said 76 Palestinians were killed in the past day, bringing the death toll since October 7 to 32,490. The numbers cannot be verified and do not differentiate between combatants and civilians.

Amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza, some 25 aid trucks reached the northern Strip overnight, after just seven trucks arrived the previous night, an Israeli official said. No looting was reported on either night.

The trucks entered through Crossing 96, a new gateway into the enclave set up next to Kibbutz Be’eri, after first being checked in Kerem Shalom.

The UN has repeatedly warned of famine in the Palestinian territory, particularly in the north, which has been largely cut off from aid deliveries amid the combat.

However, Israel blames the ailing humanitarian situation on aid agencies’ failure to distribute supplies, and on Hamas and armed groups that have looted trucks entering the Gaza.

War erupted on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst into Israel by air, land and sea, killing close to 1,200 people and kidnapping another 253 to Gaza.

The New York Times on Tuesday published an interview with Amit Soussana, the first Israeli woman to speak publicly about having been sexually abused while held hostage in Gaza.

Soussana, a 40-year-old lawyer who was abducted from a kibbutz on October 7 and released in November, said she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by her guard inside Gaza, and was repeatedly beaten.

Amit Soussana speaks to journalists at Kibbutz Kfar Azza on January 29, 2024 (Paulina Patimer/Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Earlier this month, the United Nations published a report stating that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Hamas committed rape and sexual abuse during its murderous rampage on October 7, and that there is an even higher standard of evidence to indicate that hostages kidnapped by Hamas that day were subject to rape in captivity.

Soussana spoke to the UN investigator who issued the report during her visit to Israel in late January.

IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said that Soussana’s abuse “is a wake-up call to the world to act. To do everything and pressure Hamas. To free our hostages. To bring our hostages home.”

Hamas has rejected Israel’s latest offer in talks on a hostage deal and truce, and Jerusalem on Tuesday recalled its negotiating team from Qatar. Despite that, several news outlets reported that a small Mossad team remained in Qatar to continue talks. The Prime Minister’s Office would not comment on the reports.

Agencies and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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