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Israeli invasion of Rafah looms as military issues order to evacuate Palestinian refugees

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu said it had been left with ‘no other choice’ after the latest breakdown of ceasefire negotiations with Hamas

Palestinian children walk past a house damaged in an Israeli strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 1, 2024.
Palestinian children walk past a house damaged in an Israeli strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 1, 2024.Hatem Khaled (REUTERS)
Luis de Vega

Israel’s threat to force the military evacuation of Gazans in Rafah, where some 1.5 million people — the vast majority of the Strip’s population — are crowded together, arrived on Monday: “Anyone who is close to terrorist organizations endangers his life and that of his family,” reads one of the leaflets distributed among the population. “For your safety, the army asks you to immediately evacuate,” it adds. The military order, which has been anticipated for weeks, was coordinated with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and came just hours after negotiations for a truce between Israel and Hamas broke down for the umpteenth time. The preparations for the invasion of Rafah, the only city in the Strip where the Israeli army has not yet deployed ground troops, are also taking place against the warnings of the international community. At the forefront of these calls are Israel’s main ally, the United States, the United Nations, and the humanitarian organizations deployed on the ground in Gaza.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah, May 5, 2024.
Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah, May 5, 2024. Hatem Khaled (REUTERS)

The ceasefire agreement had been in the works in recent days according to reports from both sides, but it was Netanyahu who scuttled the process, reported The New York Times. The Israeli prime minister’s statements over the weekend, insisting on invading Rafah, led Hamas to harden its position, the U.S. daily said citing official Israeli sources. The fundamentalist group also launched an attack on Israeli territory Sunday, killing at least four soldiers, hours before negotiations were halted for the time being. Given the situation, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there “was no other choice” but to launch the operation in Rafah, as he told U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a phone call.

“Israel has agreed to significant concessions to bring the hostages home, but Hamas has repeatedly refused,” said Israel’s chief diplomat, Israel Katz, on X, adding that: “Everyone understands that [Hamas’ political leader in Gaza Yahya] Sinwar has no intention of releasing all hostages, even in exchange for everything.” Sinwar is accused by Israel of being the mastermind behind the October 7 attacks. He is also often singled out as the Hamas commander with the final say when it comes to agreeing to deals such as a ceasefire.

“An Israeli offensive in Rafah would mean more civilian suffering and deaths. The consequences would be devastating,” warned the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) on the same social network, underlining that it is not participating in an Israeli-ordered population movement. “The Agency will maintain a presence in Rafah as long as possible and will continue providing lifesaving aid to people,” it added.

As on previous occasions when Israeli troops have ordered the expulsion of citizens from other areas of Gaza, “calls to temporarily move to the humanitarian area will be conveyed through posters, SMS messages, phone calls and media broadcasts in Arabic,” specifies an army statement.

Israeli army warns of “extreme force” in Rafah

Some leaflets are already circulating in which the Israeli authorities warn Palestinians that their lives are in danger if they do not agree to be evacuated. In these announcements the areas to be emptied of citizens initially, amounting to some 100,000 people the Israeli military estimates, are named. In these, “the army will act with extreme force” against armed militia groups, the announcement adds.

Israel therefore is attempting to present the expulsion of Palestinians from Rafah as a humanitarian action to move them to another area where they can be better cared for. Its real intentions become apparent at the end of Gallant’s statement: the aim is to wipe out the last Hamas battalions and free the remaining hostages in Gaza.

Large numbers of Palestinians in Rafah live in tents with little access to food, water, or medical care and many have already been displaced several times during the war. It is also where, in addition to the remaining Hamas battalions, most of the more than 100 hostages, many of them reportedly already dead, are being held.

“We expanded the humanitarian area in Al-Mawasi to accommodate the increased levels of aid flowing into Gaza. The area includes field hospitals, tents and increased amounts of food, water, medication and additional supplies,” COGAT, the Israeli military body in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs, said.

The statement refers to the area where, two weeks ago, satellite images detected the installation of some of the 40,000 tents acquired by Israel, which states that “a continuous assessment of the situation will guide the gradual movement of civilians from specified areas to the humanitarian area.” Together with the communiqué, COGAT published graphics in which it tries to explain how the evacuation is going to be implemented.

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