IDF outlines Rafah evac plan amid pending offensive operations

Netanyahu envisions the IDF maintaining full operational freedom in Gaza indefinitely.

By Joshua Marks, JNS

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday evening presented to the War Cabinet a plan to evacuate the civilian population from combat zones in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah.

The IDF also introduced its operational plan for the pending offensive in what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called “the last Hamas bastion.”

Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes in Khan Yunis as it is seen from Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Jan. 24, 2024. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

To that end, the premier told CBS News on Sunday that once the invasion of the city along the Egyptian border begins, the IDF will be “weeks away from total victory.”

Hamas started the war on Oct. 7 when it led a mass attack on the northwestern Negev, killing 1,200 people, wounding thousands more and kidnapping 253. Israel conducted an aerial campaign against Hamas in the weeks after the massacre, which paved the way for the ground offensive that started on Oct. 27.

The potential ceasefire deal under discussion in Doha won’t stop the IDF from operating in the city, Netanyahu added.

“If we have a deal, [the operation] will be delayed somewhat, but it will happen. If we don’t have a deal, we’ll do it anyway,” he stated.

Many of the 134 captives still in the hands of Hamas in Gaza after 143 days are believed to be held in the Rafah area. It is feared that some of them could have been smuggled to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula via the tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

Two hostages were rescued from Rafah by Israeli special forces earlier this month.

Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv, Feb. 24, 2024. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

International concern has mounted ahead of the Rafah offensive because of the large civilian population in the city, which swelled to some 1.5 million, more than half of Gaza’s total of 2.3 million, after the IDF directed civilians to a humanitarian zone there when the war began in October.

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Netanyahu said last week that those calling for Israel to forgo an operation in Rafah were effectively urging the IDF to surrender to Hamas.

“I speak with world leaders every day. I tell them decisively: Israel will fight until we achieve total victory. And indeed, this includes action in Rafah, of course after we allow the civilians found in the combat zones to evacuate to safe areas,” said Netanyahu.

“Whoever wants to prevent us from operating in Rafah is telling us in effect to lose the war. I will not allow this. … We will not surrender to any pressure. We will not surrender, because we are a people of heroes. We will not surrender because we are a people that desires life. We will not surrender because we must—must—defeat the evil,” he added.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Mount Hermon, near the Lebanese and Syrian borders, with commandos from the IDF Alpinist Unit, Feb. 22, 2024. Credit: Prime Minister’s Spokesperson Unit

Netanyahu last week also formally presented for the first time his “day after” Hamas plan, which reiterates his oft-stated goal of completely eradicating the Palestinian terror group and emphasizes ongoing Israeli security control west of the Jordan River, including in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

In the short term, the plan emphasizes the need to completely eliminate the military and governing capabilities of both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, free the remaining hostages and ensure that the Strip never again constitutes a security threat to the Jewish state.

To this end, Netanyahu envisions the IDF maintaining full operational freedom in Gaza indefinitely, as well as establishing a buffer zone along the border to protect southern communities.

The buffer zone will remain in place for “as long as there is a security need for it,” according to the proposal.

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The military will act to ensure that the Strip remains demilitarized, “beyond what is required for the needs of maintaining public order.” This includes creating a “southern closure” along the Egypt-Gaza border, including the Rafah crossing, to prevent the re-emergence of terrorism and smuggling through Hamas’s elaborate tunnel system under the Philadelphi Corridor.

In this matter, Israel will work in cooperation with Egypt and the United States “as much as possible.”

In parallel, the IDF will empower “local officials” unassociated with Hamas to govern areas of Gaza. Israel’s goal is for community leaders to manage the reception and distribution of humanitarian aid, while security forces will prevent terrorists from interfering with this process.

According to reports, Gazan representatives recently met with Israeli officials to discuss launching a pilot program for civil governance in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood.

Netanyahu’s program includes a comprehensive de-radicalization process that replaces school curricula with textbooks that do not promote violent rejection of Israel and hatred towards Jews. Moreover, Gazan authorities will not be connected to or funded by “countries or entities that support terrorism.”

Boys take part in a summer camp organized by the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, in Khan Yunis, the southern Gaza Strip, June 22, 2023. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

Netanyahu’s proposal conditions the reconstruction of Gaza on both its demilitarization and de-radicalization, which will proceed “as much as possible with the involvement and assistance of Arab countries that have experience” in this regard.

It also entails a concerted effort to shut down UNRWA, some of whose workers participated in the Oct. 7 massacre and whose institutions have been infiltrated by Hamas. The plan calls for the U.N. agency to be replaced by “responsible” international aid organizations.

Finally, Netanyahu’s proposal reiterates Israel’s rejection of any unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood, amid reports the Biden administration is considering such a move.

Humanitarian aid plan approved for southern Gaza

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In addition, War Cabinet ministers on Sunday approved a plan to distribute humanitarian aid to the southern part of the coastal enclave “in a manner that will prevent the looting that has occurred in the northern Strip and other areas,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Israel will start transferring humanitarian supplies directly to northern Gaza to bypass Hamas, the War Cabinet decided on Saturday night.

In the coming days, trucks carrying supplies bound for the parts of Gaza already conquered by Israeli forces will enter near the Karni crossing at the northeastern end of the Strip. The crossing was permanently closed in 2011, with the last remaining structures of the cargo terminal demolished by the Israeli military in 2022.

Aid trucks arrive at the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom crossing in the southern Strip, Dec. 18, 2023. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

On Dec. 15, Israel’s Security Cabinet approved the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing for the transfer of aid to the Strip after intense U.S. and international pressure. All the Israeli crossings to Gaza had been shuttered after the Oct. 7 massacre, with only Egypt’s Rafah crossing from Sinai remaining open.

However, Hamas has been hijacking up to 60% of the aid entering the Gaza Strip, according to Israel.

UNRWA is suspending aid deliveries to northern Gaza via Egypt’s Rafah crossing, the Guardian reported on Saturday.

“The desperate behavior of hungry and exhausted people is preventing the safe and regular passage of our trucks,” Tamara Alrifai, director of external relations for UNRWA, told the British newspaper.

Also, last week the World Food Programme (WFP) said that it had been forced to halt humanitarian aid deliveries to northern Gaza, citing the “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order.”

Meanwhile, Israel has not granted UNRWA permits to deliver aid to northern Gaza for more than a month.

The agency is under dire financial pressure following the suspension of aid by 18 countries. The suspension came following allegations that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre.

Subsequent reporting has suggested that about 10% of UNRWA’s staff has ties to Palestinian terror.

In addition to UNRWA, Israeli authorities have also stopped renewing visas and work permits to a large number of aid workers in Gaza and Judea and Samaria.

Sporadic protests have taken place over the past two months at Kerem Shalom in an attempt to prevent aid shipments from entering Gaza while Hamas continues to hold Israelis hostage and wage war against the Jewish state.

Activists have also attempted to block the aid trucks at the smaller Nitzana crossing to Sinai and at the Ashdod port.

Clashes broke out between Israeli security personnel and protesters at the Kerem Shalom crossing to Gaza on Feb. 22, with one of the demonstrators reportedly injured by security forces.