Israel says it is poised to move on Rafah

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel's military is poised to evacuate Palestinian civilians from Rafah and assault Hamas hold-outs in the southern Gaza Strip city, a senior Israeli defence official said on Wednesday, despite international warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government said Israel was "moving ahead" with a ground operation, but gave no timeline.

The defence official said Israel's Defence Ministry had bought 40,000 tents, each with the capacity for 10 to 12 people, to house Palestinians relocated from Rafah in advance of an assault.

Video circulating online appeared to show rows of square white tents going up in Khan Younis, a city some 5 km (3 miles) from Rafah. Reuters could not verify the video but reviewed images from satellite company Maxar Technologies which showed tent camps on Khan Younis land that had been vacant weeks ago.

An Israeli government source said Netanyahu's war cabinet planned to meet in the coming two weeks to authorise civilian evacuations, expected to take around a month.

The defence official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters that the military could go into action immediately but was awaiting a green light from Netanyahu.

Rafah, which abuts the Egyptian border, is sheltering more than a million Palestinians who fled the half-year-old Israeli offensive through the rest of Gaza and say the prospect of fleeing yet again is terrifying.

"I have to make a decision whether to leave Rafah because my mother and I are afraid an invasion could happen suddenly and we won't get time to escape," said Aya, 30, who has been living temporarily in the city with her family in a school.

She said that some families recently moved to a refugee camp in coastal Al-Mawasi, but their tents caught fire when tank shells landed nearby. "Where do we go?"


Israel, which launched its war to annihilate Hamas after the Islamist group's Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli towns, says Rafah is home to four Hamas combat battalions reinforced by thousands of retreating fighters, and it must defeat them to achieve victory.

"Hamas was hit hard in the northern sector. It was also hit hard in the centre of the Strip. And soon it will be hit hard in Rafah, too," Brigadier-General Itzik Cohen, commander of Israel's 162nd Division operating in Gaza, told Kan public TV.

But Israel's closest ally Washington has called on it to set aside plans for an assault, and says Israel can combat Hamas fighters there by other means.

"We could not support a Rafah ground operation without an appropriate, credible, executable humanitarian plan precisely because of the complications for delivery of assistance," David Satterfield, U.S. special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issued, told reporters on Tuesday.

"We continue discussions with Israel on what we believe are alternate ways of addressing a challenge which we recognise, which is Hamas military present in Rafah."

Egypt says it will not allow Gazans to be pushed across the border onto its territory. Cairo had warned Israel against moving on Rafah, which "would lead to massive human massacres, losses (and) widespread destruction", its State Information Service said.

Three Egyptian security sources said that military and security coordination between Egypt and Israel over any Israeli incursion into Rafah did not mean approval of it.

Egypt welcomed the return of Palestinians northwards from Rafah, believing it to be in the interest of the population despite also serving Israeli plans to besiege Hamas in Rafah, the sources added.

Israel has withdrawn most of its ground troops from southern Gaza this month but kept up air strikes and conducted raids into areas its troops abandoned. Efforts by the United States, Egypt and Qatar to broker an extended ceasefire in time to head off an assault on Rafah have so far failed.

Gaza medical officials say than 34,000 people have been killed in Israel's military campaign, with thousands more bodies feared buried under rubble.

Hamas killed 1,200 people and abducted 253 on Oct 7, according to Israeli tallies. Of those hostages, 129 remain in Gaza, Israeli officials say. More than 260 Israeli troops have been killed in ground fighting since Oct 20, the military says.

H. A. Hellyer, a senior associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said he expected the assault on Rafah "sooner rather than later" because Netanyahu is under pressure to meet his stated objectives of rescuing hostages and killing all the Hamas leaders.

"The invasion of Rafah is unavoidable because of the way he has framed all of this," he said. But it will not be possible for everyone to leave the city, so "if he sends the military into Rafah, there are going to be a lot of casualties".

(Writing by Dan Williams; additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ahmed Mohamed Hassan; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Angus MacSwan and Kim Coghill)