Israel reportedly deploys extra weapons for assumed Rafah offensive

<span>Rafah is currently the only place of relative safety for at least 1.4 million displaced Palestinian civilians.</span><span>Photograph: Bassam Masoud/Reuters</span>
Rafah is currently the only place of relative safety for at least 1.4 million displaced Palestinian civilians.Photograph: Bassam Masoud/Reuters

Israel has reportedly deployed extra artillery and armoured personnel carriers to the Gaza Strip periphery, suggesting that the military is preparing for its long-threatened ground offensive on Rafah, the only place of relative safety for at least 1.4 million displaced Palestinian civilians.

Israeli daily Ma’ariv also said on Wednesday that troops had been put on alert and “the governing principle of the operation” had been approved by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) general staff and Yoav Gallant, the defence minister. The IDF declined to comment on the reports.

The IDF confirmed on Tuesday it was buying 40,000 tents to prepare for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians who have sought shelter in Rafah, the southernmost town in the Gaza Strip, which is only major urban area in the territory that Israeli ground forces have not yet entered.

The new operation in the six-month war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas will reportedly focus first on securing northern and central Gaza, particularly the string of refugee camps around the town of Deir al-Balah, Ma’ariv said.

It comes 10 days after Israel withdrew the bulk of its ground forces from the strip, leaving one division to man the Netzarim Corridor, the Israeli-built buffer that now divides the coastal territory.

But Palestinians on the ground said there had been a renewed presence of Israeli ground troops in northern Gaza this week, including in Beit Hanoun, where tanks surrounded school buildings where displaced people were sheltering.

Overnight, Israeli airstrikes hit Rafah and several other urban areas. Wafa, the Palestinian news agency, said six people were killed in the bombing of a market in Gaza City. The IDF said it had hit more than 40 targets, including a cell operating an armed drone and rocket launcher sites.

Israel has said for weeks it is going to launch a ground operation into the last corner of Gaza that has not seen fierce ground fighting, despite intense opposition from its closest allies, including the US. Israel says that Hamas’s leadership, and Israeli hostages, are also in Rafah, along with four battalions of fighters.

As of Tuesday, the US state department said it had still not been briefed in detail on Israel’s “plans for evacuation or humanitarian considerations’’ of the potential operation. Any major ground operation in Rafah will almost certainly need to be coordinated with Washington and Cairo, given the town’s sensitive position on the Egyptian border.

The reported preparations for an offensive come against a backdrop of stalling internationally mediated ceasefire talks, as well as heightened tensions between Israel and Iran following Tehran’s first ever direct attack on the Jewish state, which took the form of a salvo of more than 300 missiles and drones fired in Israel’s direction over the weekend.

Israel’s war cabinet is now focused on weighing up how to respond to Iran, but the government has also repeatedly insisted the Rafah operation will go ahead.

On Wednesday, Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said negotiations aimed at a ceasefire and release of Israeli hostages had once again hit a “stumbling block”.

Israel and Hamas have been unable to agree on the conditions and length of a ceasefire and the identities and numbers of Israeli hostages to be released in exchange for freeing Palestinians held in Israel jails. A ceasefire held at the end of November collapsed after a week.

Since then, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has become steadily worse: Israel has destroyed almost all the strip’s healthcare facilities and famine is now present in some areas.

International pressure on Israel to increase the flow of aid to Gaza in the wake of the 1 April killing of a team of international aid workers has “increased and quite dramatically” in the last few days, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday. A single bakery in Gaza City was able to open for the first time in months earlier this week, drawing crowds who waited for hours.

Since aid, to an extent, is leverage that Israel no longer holds in the hostage-release talks, an operation in Rafah may be a way to increase pressure on Hamas at the negotiating table, said Amos Harel, a military and defence analyst and writer for Israeli daily Haaretz.

“Biden has been telling Bibi that he can’t invade Rafah, so it may be that we see a smaller incursion over a limited time period in which Israel hits the Hamas battalions hard and then withdraws,” he said, using a well-known moniker for the Israel prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

At least 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s latest war against Hamas, triggered by the Palestinian militant group’s 7 October attack in which 1,200 Israelis were killed and about 250 taken hostage.

Israel has been strongly criticised by Palestinians and the rest of the world for launching an unprecedented war in Gaza without any plan for the “day after” the conflict.

On Wednesday, Israeli media reported that the US was holding talks with Arab states aimed at creating a “multinational transitional authority” that would be responsible for governing and rebuilding the strip for the next five years as part of steps towards international recognition of a Palestinian state.