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Israel warns Gazans to evacuate Rafah neighborhoods ahead of planned offensive

The Israeli military on Monday told Palestinians sheltered in some areas east of Rafah to move to a designated area further north, warning them of a long-awaited offensive to defeat Hamas in the southern Gaza city.

The evacuation notice, which was delivered through text messages, phone calls, leaflets and Arabic-language media broadcasts, came after talks on a ceasefire to free hostages held in Gaza collapsed in Cairo. over the weekend, amid disagreement over whether there should be a permanent end to the fighting or just a temporary pause.

The army’s warning could still be a negotiating tactic by Israel to force Hamas to reach a deal, as ceasefire talks were expected to continue this week in Doha.

People take sacks of flour from a truck after the Israeli army began evacuating Palestinian civilians ahead of a threatened assault on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 6, 2024. Photo: Reuters

Israel says it needs to disband the four remaining Hamas battalions located in Rafah, the only Gaza city that has not been subject to a full ground invasion by Israel, to achieve its goal of destroying the group’s ability to attack Israel. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization, but Joe Biden’s administration also warned Israel that an offensive on the city risks endangering more Palestinian lives amid growing international concern over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the enclave.

More than a million Palestinians are currently taking refuge in Rafah. Most of them have been displaced from their homes elsewhere in Gaza during the seven-month war, which began after the Hamas-led attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, on October 7. More than 34,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed since the start of the Israeli offensive in the enclave, according to Palestinian authorities, whose figures do not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

The Israeli military said Monday’s evacuation notice would affect about 100,000 people. He did not specify when the affected neighborhoods should be evacuated or give any indication of when a broader offensive could begin.

An offensive in Rafah also poses risks for Israel. The United States has repeatedly called on Israel to avoid an operation in Rafah unless it has a credible plan to limit the loss of Palestinian life, and last week said it had not yet received such assurances. The military also risks killing Israeli hostages, many of whom are believed to be held in Rafah. More Israeli soldiers losing their lives during an offensive could put public pressure on the Israeli government to end the war.

About 128 of the hostages who were taken in Israel during the Hamas-led attacks on October 7 are still being held in Gaza. At least 35 of those remaining in Gaza, including three Americans, are dead, according to recently updated Israeli figures. Israeli and American officials privately estimate that the number of hostages killed could be much higher.

The Israeli military said Monday that it would “continue to pursue Hamas everywhere in Gaza until all the hostages they are holding captive return home,” without providing a timeline for evacuation. It said that the Israeli government had approved an offensive in Rafah.

Talks on a ceasefire deal ended Sunday in Cairo after Hamas failed to formally respond to an Israeli-Egyptian proposal to suspend fighting in exchange for the release of hostages. The group has repeatedly asked for assurances that Israel will not attack again after a ceasefire, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to do so.

Hamas’s military wing also fired rockets and mortars from near Rafah on Sunday toward an Israeli-controlled border crossing, killing three soldiers and wounding several others, the Israeli military said. Hamas’s military wing claimed responsibility for the attack. Israel said it closed the border crossing, one of the two main aid entrances into Gaza, after the attack.

“Israel will not accept Hamas’ demands, which would mean surrendering,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. “He will continue fighting until all his objectives are achieved.”

Under pressure from the United States, Israel has increased aid to Gaza in recent weeks, and the military on Monday asked Palestinians to move to the al-Mawasi area, north of Rafah. Israel has designated the area as a humanitarian zone and said it includes field hospitals, tents and increased quantities of food, water, medicine and additional supplies. But aid groups have raised questions about whether al-Mawasi will truly be safe for civilians.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that Israel has responded to American and international pressure by scrapping plans for an all-out assault on Rafah and instead plans to launch its operation in phases, evacuating neighborhoods before moving on to new areas.

The Israeli Army said late last month that it had mobilized two reserve brigades, or thousands of soldiers, and deployed them to Gaza. Most forces are concentrated in the corridor separating northern and southern Gaza.

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