The Israeli special forces operation that military officials said freed two hostages early Monday in Rafah was accompanied by a wave of airstrikes that left dozens of Palestinians dead, according to Gaza health officials. The attacks signaled the challenges Israel would face if its ground forces invaded the populous southern city of Gaza.
Israeli leaders have framed the invasion of Rafah as imperative to achieving their goal of eliminating Hamas. But planning such an operation, in a city where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge, is fraught with complexity and will likely take some time, according to Israeli officials and analysts.
A major challenge for Israeli forces will be how to get civilians who have gathered in the city out of harm’s way. Many Gazans fled to Rafah under instructions from the Israeli military to avoid fighting further north in Gaza, and a chorus of international leaders has expressed concern that people there have nowhere to go.
The prospect of an attack on Rafah is creating tensions with Egypt, which fears a destabilizing influx of Palestinian refugees across its border. Egypt is an important strategic partner for Israel in the region and has played a key role in negotiations aimed at securing the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
And it has increased divisions with the United States, with President Biden warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a phone call on Sunday that a ground offensive in Rafah must include a plan to protect civilians.
The Biden administration has also expressed concern about fighting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to two Israeli officials with knowledge of the discussions. An attack during Ramadan, which is expected to begin on March 10, although the timing depends on the sighting of the moon over Mecca, could be seen as particularly provocative for Muslims in the region and beyond.
Israeli officials say the military is still working on its plans to invade Rafah and that they have not yet been presented to Netanyahu. Meanwhile, some have taken a defiant tone about the anticipated assault on a city that officials have called Hamas’ last stronghold in Gaza.
“The operation in Rafah will take place,” Avi Dichter, a minister from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, told Israel’s public broadcaster Kan on Sunday. “This will begin and end, like other places,” he said.
He also dismissed the idea that Ramadan should pose limitations. “Ramadan is not a month without war; it never was,” he said, noting that Egypt went to war against Israel in 1973 during the holy month.
Yaakov Amidror, former general and national security adviser, said Israeli officials understand that “Rafah is a complex issue.” But he described an invasion as necessary to destroy the Hamas battalions that remain in the city, in order to meet Israel’s war goals of dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities and its ability to govern Gaza.
“It is not imminent,” he said of the operation, “but it will have to be done.”
Doing so without evacuating civilians would be “almost impossible,” he added, meaning civilians would need to be moved from Rafah. Netanyahu said in an interview with ABC News broadcast on Sunday that Israel was “drawing up a detailed plan” to do so, although he did not provide details.
Dichter suggested that Gazans could be moved to an area west of Rafah along the coast. Amidror suggested other options, including some areas of central Gaza where the army has not yet operated, or the nearby town of Khan Younis, once Israel ends its campaign there.
Gabby Sobelman contributed reports.