Israel mulling ‘evacuation plan’ as Rafah offensive looms

Rafah assault ‘inevitable’, says Israeli PM Netanyahu. Any deal with Hamas would only delay it.

the towers of a destroyed mosque can be seen from above
A donkey-pulled cart passes in front of the Al-Faruq mosque, levelled by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on a foggy day on February 25, 2024 [Mohammed Abed/AFP]

Israel is mulling an “evacuation plan” for civilians from unspecified parts of the Gaza Strip.

A plan to evacuate people from “areas of fighting” was presented to the war cabinet by the military, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement issued on Monday. The proposal comes as the Israeli army prepares for a long-threatened offensive on the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1.4 million people are trapped.

The war cabinet discussed late on Sunday the “plan for evacuating the population from the areas of fighting in the Gaza Strip” and “the upcoming operational plan”, the prime minister’s office said.

However, the details are unconfirmed. The brief statement did not specify that the plans are related to the intended ground invasion of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population has been forcibly displaced.

“This is a dual action plan. One, for Israel’s ground invasion into Rafah, and two, an evacuation plan for the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians who are seeking refuge in Gaza’s southernmost city,” said Al Jazeera’s Hamdah Salhut, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem.

Only route to ‘total victory’

The reports of the plans followed shortly after the chiefs of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad and internal security service Shin Bet returned from the latest truce talks in Paris. They reportedly had in hand the outline of a potential agreement with Hamas that envisages a pause in fighting for up to six weeks to facilitate an exchange of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli captives.

The framework has been presented to Hamas, but the group has yet to publicly comment. An Israeli delegation will be sent to Qatar in the coming days for further negotiations.

Al Jazeera’s Salhut pointed out that Netanyahu has said no deal is yet agreed and imminent.

“Additionally, when we talk about Rafah, the Israeli prime minister – while speaking to American media – has said that if there is a deal, the ground invasion will be delayed. If there is not a deal, the ground invasion would happen sooner,” she said.

“But no matter the outcome, Israel’s ground invasion into Rafah, despite all the international criticism and condemnation, is going to take place because he says that is the only way to achieve ‘total victory’ over Hamas.”

Egypt building fortified buffer zone

‘Same page’

Amid the plans and talks, Israel’s ground invasion of southern Gaza is ongoing in Khan Younis, and bombs have continued to fall on Rafah and other areas in the besieged enclave, where about 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7.

Netanyahu told US broadcaster CBS late on Sunday that once the Rafah invasion begins, the “intense phase” of the fighting will be weeks from completion. He said “we’re on the same page with the US” on the need to evacuate civilians.

“The reason you have that population in Rafah is because we actually cleared them away from other combat zones that we had, that’s why they’re there. So now there’s room for them to go north of Rafah, to the places that we’ve already finished fighting in.”

The Israeli leader also reiterated a claim that Tel Aviv has no plans to push Palestinians in Rafah into bordering Egypt.

Satellite images and reports have indicated Egypt has been building a fortified buffer zone that could potentially house tens of thousands of Palestinians who may be forced into its borders by an Israeli attack, but Cairo has denied this.

Egypt has also threatened that more than four decades of peace with Israel could be in jeopardy if the Rafah invasion takes place.

According to Netanyahu’s office, a separate plan for “providing humanitarian assistance” has also been presented to the cabinet, which is allegedly designed to “prevent the looting that has occurred in the northern Strip and other areas”.

Aid convoys have struggled to move through Rafah to reach other areas after Israeli forces targeted and killed Palestinian police who were trying to help aid convoys navigate hungry and desperate crowds.

Source: Al Jazeera