Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Israeli newspaper Arab 48 reports that the Israeli army has agreed on a plan prepared for the land invasion of Rafah City in South Gaza. The city is the last refuge for over a million Palestinian refugees pushed out of the northern Gaza Strip by earlier Israeli military operations.
Arab 48 reports that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu replied to pressure from US President Joe Biden to reduce civilian casualties by saying on Friday evening that it is impossible to achieve the war aim of destroying Hamas if four of its battalions are allowed to remain in Rafah. Biden called Netanyahu’s conduct of the war “over the top” at a news conference on Thursday. Netanyahu’s office added that the prime minister recognized that a military assault on Rafah could not take place until the civilian population had been removed. The communique said that the army had been asked for a plan for moving the civilians.
On Thursday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby had said of the 1.4 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, “”Military operations right now would be a disaster for those people and it’s not something that we would support.” But Kirby also seemed out of the loop, saying he didn’t know of an Israeli plan to invade the city — a plan Netanyahu announced Friday.
The Palestine Authority objected strenuously to Netanyahu’s plan and is warning frantically that this Israeli announcement heralds the beginning of a drive to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian people from its land. The office of President Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestine Authority would hold Israel entirely responsible for the consequences of this move, and that it would in particular hold the Biden administration responsible, emphasizing the gravity of such a destructive policy. Abbas’s office said, “The Palestinian people will never relinquish its land and will never accept being ethically cleansed from its homeland.”
The Israeli state radio, Channel 11, affirmed that Tel Aviv had informed a number of states in the region, as well as the United States, that it is preparing to begin a military operation in Rafah.
Meanwhile Israeli radio channel 12 announced that the Israeli army had confirmed its intention to implement a blueprint for this assault, and alluded, as well, “to the removal of civilians from there.”
Channel 11 is quoted as saying, “In accordance with the demands of Egypt and the United States, the ground operation in Rafah will not begin until two conditions are met: a large-scale evacuation of civilians from the Rafah and its surroundings, and an agreement between Israel and Egypt, regarding the operation of the Israeli army against the Philadelphia Axis tunnels.”
[The Middle East Monitor explains, “The Philadelphia Axis is a narrow strip within the territory of the Gaza Strip, extending 14 km (8.7 miles) along the border between the enclave and Egypt. ‘Israel fears the presence of tunnels in the Palestinian area east Rafah, which is considered an extension of the Philadelphia Axis,’ Israeli channel i24News said.”]
Channel 11 said that regarding the Israeli military plan to remove the residents from Rafah, it was studying two plans. One was to expel the Rafah population north to Khan Younis. The other was to permit tens of thousands of residents to return to the shelters assigned to them in the north of the Gaza Strip. The latter would involve creating shelters in clinics, schools and bakeries. Thereafter, a tent city would be established, which would receive foodstuffs, water and humanitarian aid on an organized basis via the Erez and Karni checkpoints at the Gaza-Israel border.
Thereafter, Israeli state radio said, governance responsibilities would be handed over to Palestinians in Gaza who were not connected to Hamas.
[Juan says that the second plan is surprising, since Defense Minister Yoav Galant had wanted a buffer zone in north Gaza and seemed to prefer it depopulated. Likewise Netanyahu had seemed to envisage Israeli troops patrolling Gaza after the war, on the model of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. These rumored plans are either coming from other actors or indicate a change in thinking on the Israeli cabinet.]
According to Channel 12, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chief of the General Staff Herzi Halevy discussed the continuation of the war several days ago. It reported that the two had a dispute, since Netanyahu wanted the army to strike immediately, but Halevy wanted to wait until “conditions were suitable.” Netanyahu allegedly told Halevy that there isn’t much time, since the Hamas units in Rafah needed to be broken up before the advent of the month of Ramadan.
Ramadan is the holy fasting month for Muslims and begins (March 11 to April 10).
Halevy allegedly retorted that the army is preparing a plan, but that its details haven’t been worked out, including what to do about removing the civilian population from Rafah and how to reach an understanding with Egypt regarding the Philadelphia Axis tunnels.
[Egypt is denying any cooperation with Israel at the Philiadelphia Axis. Relations between the two countries there are governed by the terms of the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords.]
Channel 12 alleged that Netanyahu told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the Rafah operation would begin within two weeks.
Egypt is said to be worried that the Israelis will attempt to drive the Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula from Gaza and Cairo is determined to prevent any such development. Egyptian officials say that their preference is to quickly move to a ceasefire.