Israel’s defence chief says military ‘thoroughly planning’ offensive in Rafah

Israel’s defence minister said Israel is “thoroughly planning” a military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The move signals the country’s determination to move ahead despite growing international concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians seeking refuge there.

US President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to carry out the operation without a “credible” plan to protect civilians and to instead focus on a ceasefire, while Egypt has said an operation could threaten diplomatic relations between the countries.

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The war between Hamas and Israel is now entered its fifth month (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza’s population, have crammed into Rafah, most of them displaced by fighting elsewhere in the territory. Hundreds of thousands are living in sprawling tent camps.

Speaking to reporters Friday, defence minister Yoav Gallant said that Israel has inflicted heavy losses on Hamas during a war, which is now in its fifth month, and that Rafah is “the next Hamas centre of gravity” Israel plans to target.

“We are thoroughly planning future operations in Rafah, which is a significant Hamas stronghold,” he said.

He declined to say when the operation might begin, though Israel has previously said it will first develop a plan to evacuate civilians.

Palestinians and international aid agencies say there is no safe place to go, with Israel also carrying out strikes in areas where it had told civilians to seek shelter, including Rafah.

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Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

The air and ground offensive has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, caused widespread destruction, displaced some 80% of the population and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Egypt has repeatedly warned Israel not to push Palestinian civilians in Rafah across the border, saying a mass influx could lead to the end of the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

While some Israeli hard-liners have called for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, Mr Gallant said there were no plans to do so.

“The state of Israel has no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt,” he said.

“We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region as well as an important partner.”

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This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows wall construction in Rafah, Egypt (Maxar Technologies via AP)

Egyptian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The Israeli offensive has included months of airstrikes as well as a ground invasion that has steadily moved southward through most of Gaza.

In recent weeks, it has focused on Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city and a Hamas stronghold.

On Friday, Palestinian health officials in Khan Younis said that five patients in intensive care died after their oxygen ran out following a raid by Israeli troops in southern Gaza’s largest hospital.

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Palestinians watch an Israeli helicopter fly over Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Israel says it does not target patients or doctors, but staff say the facility is struggling under heavy fire and dwindling supplies, including food and water.

Mr Gallant said 70 suspected militants have been arrested at the hospital, including 20 people who allegedly participated in the October 7 attack.

Two Israeli airstrikes on Rafah overnight killed at least 13 people, including nine members of the same family, according to hospital officials.

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