Israel on the brink of Rafah invasion as Hamas prepares for full-scale attack

An Israeli tank waits on the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip near Rafah – ATEF SAFADI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Amid 40C heat, key players from the UN gathered in a tattered compound in Rafah to hear the organisation’s most senior security official brief them on what is expected to be a traumatic and bloody few upcoming weeks and months in southern Gaza.

“We can’t predict but we can prepare,” Gilles Michaud, UN Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security, told aid workers from the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, Unicef and others.

They should plan for all contingencies, including a full-scale military incursion, he warned.

A graduate of the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Mr Michaud is better placed than most to read the runes over an expected Israeli push into Rafah, the last holdout of Hamas in Gaza and home to more than a million displaced people.

For those who take Benjamin Netanyahu at his word, there is no doubt an assault is coming.

Ever since Oct 7, he has promised to not stop until the destruction of Hamas.

Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, the terror group’s two most senior leaders in Gaza, are believed to be hiding somewhere in the southern city.

A Yemeni protester holds up a mock rocket at a pro-Palestine rally in Sanaa as Israel prepares its invasion of Rafah – AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman

“This victory requires entry into Rafah and the elimination of the terrorist battalions there,” he said earlier this month. “It will happen. There is a date.”

In recent days, preparations appear to have been ramping up. Israel is reported to have procured 40,000 tents, each with space for 10 to 12 people, into which it intends to evacuate people from Rafah in the coming weeks. Satellite pictures show hundreds of tents being erected in neat rows on vacant ground in Khan Younis, three miles north of Rafah.

The Israeli media are also reporting that the IDF is readying to deploy two reserve brigades – amounting to some 6,000 soldiers – to the Gaza Strip.

The 679th Yiftah Armored Brigade and the 2nd Carmeli Infantry Brigade, which had been operating on the northern border, were set to move into central Gaza ahead of the Rafah offensive, Army Radio reported on Wednesday.

They will free up the Nahal Brigade, part of the 162nd Division, which is expected to lead the push into Rafah with heavy air support.

A satellite image of a tent camp settlement for Palestinian refugees near Rafah – Maxar Technologies

It was the Nahal Brigade that was responsible for the drone strike that killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen, including three Britons, a month ago. The senior officers responsible have since been dismissed.

Another possible indicator of impending action came with a reported meeting between Egypt’s intelligence chief and the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt Gen Herzi Halevi on Wednesday morning.

Cairo has long warned that any military action should not push Gazans over the border.

Despite the risks, the IDF is keen to promote the idea that an attack on Rafah is imminent.

“Hamas was hit hard in the northern sector. It was also hit hard in the centre of the Strip. And soon it will be hit hard in Rafah, too,” said Israeli Brig Gen Itzik Cohen of the 162 Division. “Rafah will not be the Rafah of today… There won’t be munitions there. And there won’t be hostages there.”

Most Western governments expect the assault to go ahead, but questions remain about the viability of the IDF’s stated aims.

Families of hostages held by Hamas demonstrate outside the Kirya base where the Israeli cabinet held a meeting on Thursday – Amir Levy/Getty Images

“An Israeli attack [on Rafah] will succeed in killing some Hamas fighters, it will succeed in destroying some Hamas infrastructure, including tunnels, and it will put part of the movement’s armed wing under pressure,” said Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“My assessment is that Hamas in Gaza will survive the Rafah operation. It has been a long time coming and the military wing will have been preparing for this… to a certain extent, they will be able to regroup in the central part of Gaza and the north.”

That could bode poorly for the Netanyahu government, he said: “If at the end of things they haven’t brought home the hostages and haven’t vanquished Hamas, then I think there will be a huge political crisis.”

That is likely why Israel is persisting with ceasefire talks despite a lack of progress for several months.

Some have interpreted the mounting military noise as a means to force Hamas’s hand.

Brigadier General (Res.) Assaf Orion, a former IDF head of strategy and a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said one of the gains of an assault on Rafah other than finishing off Hamas was “pressure on the hostage negotiations”.

A high-level Egyptian delegation led by Abbas Kamel, the country’s intelligence chief, arrived in Tel Aviv on Friday morning to try to break the deadlock.

If Hamas regroups after the attack, it could bode poorly for Netanyahu – Shir Torem/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Israel’s war cabinet has reportedly agreed to soften its approach by reducing the required number of hostages to be released in the first phase from 40 to 20, so long as all of them are either women, children, elderly or wounded, according to Channel 12 news.

Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, is also expected in Israel next week to discuss Rafah, according to Israeli broadcaster Kan.

Those discussions may be difficult. While the US previously supported an Israeli attack, its attitude has hardened in recent weeks.

“We don’t think there’s any effective way to evacuate 1.4 million Palestinians. There’s no way to conduct an operation in Rafah that would not lead to inordinate civilian harm and severely hamper the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” said Matthew Miller, US State Department spokesman, on Monday.

On Friday, US navy ships arrived offshore to start building a floating pier to improve the flow of aid into Gaza. IDF troops are supervising the building of a jetty on the beach to receive the cargo.

Hamas has said it will resist any foreign military presence involved with the project and UN officials touring the site on Thursday had to take cover amid a mortar attack.

Some analysts believe the US and others have greater sway over Israel following the Iranian drone, missile and rocket barrage two weeks ago, in which Western forces played a decisive role in intercepting the projectiles.

The attack made clear Israel “relies on Centcom [United States Central Command] for forward cover”, said an Israeli intelligence analyst. It also “reset the diplomatic compass”, with Israel’s “measured response” demonstrating a degree of strategic acumen in the eyes of its partners.

There can be little doubt an attack on Rafah could prove costly diplomatically.

“Rafah has become an international symbol, so perhaps relations are going to be difficult regardless of the changing conditions,” said Brig Gen Assaf Orion.

“The cost depends on the method and prior evacuation and humanitarian support, of which there are early indicators – tents, US dialogue, aid flood, etc.”

Regardless, planning is under way on the ground.

“We are looking at where there are still partially functioning hospitals in the other areas, and [asking] will they be able to manage an upsurge in patients?” said Nyka Alexander, part of the WHO’s health emergencies division.

While the flow of food into the area had improved recently, Ms Alexander said conditions in Rafah were poor, citing a lack of nutritious food, lice, extreme heat and food-borne viruses, including hepatitis.

“There are just so many difficulties that people here face,” she said. “I was at a shelter yesterday, a shelter for 50,000 people. There are 44 toilets. So you do the maths.”

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