March 4, 2024

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Israel strikes Rafah to rescue two hostages: Gaza war live updates

Israel strikes Rafah to rescue two hostages: Gaza war live updates

The population density in Rafah will make carrying out a ground operation there a great challenge.credit…Muhammad Abed/AFP – Getty Images

The Israeli special forces operation, which military officials said freed two hostages early Monday in Rafah, was accompanied by a wave of air strikes that killed dozens of Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials. The strikes indicate the challenges facing Israel if its ground forces invade the crowded Gaza City in the south of the Strip.

Israeli leaders framed the Rafah invasion as an imperative to achieve their goal of eliminating Hamas. But planning such an operation, in a city where more than a million Palestinians have taken refuge, is fraught with complexity and is likely to take some time, according to Israeli officials and analysts.

The main challenge facing Israeli forces will be how to move civilians who have crowded into the city out of harm's way. Many Gazans have fled to Rafah on instructions from the Israeli military to avoid fighting further north in Gaza, and a group of international leaders have expressed concerns that people there have nowhere to go.

The possibility of an attack on Rafah creates tensions with Egypt, which fears a destabilizing influx of Palestinian refugees across its borders. Egypt is an important strategic partner of Israel in the region and played a major role in the negotiations aimed at securing the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

It exacerbated divisions with the United States, as President Biden warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call on Sunday that the ground offensive in Rafah must include a plan to protect civilians.

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The Biden administration has also expressed concern about fighting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to Israeli officials with knowledge of the discussions. Any 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 to Muslims in the region and beyond.

Israeli officials say the army is still working on its plans to invade Rafah, and they have not yet been presented to Mr. Netanyahu. Meanwhile, some struck a defiant tone over the expected attack on the city that officials described as Hamas's last stronghold in Gaza.

“The operation will take place in Rafah,” Avi Dichter, a minister from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster on Sunday. “It will begin and end, just like in other places,” he added.

He also rejected the idea that Ramadan should pose any restrictions. “Ramadan is not a month without wars – and it never was,” he said, noting that Egypt fought a war against Israel in 1973 during the holy month.

Yaakov Amidror, a former general and national security adviser, said that Israeli officials realize that “Rafah is a complex issue.” But he described the invasion as necessary to destroy the remaining Hamas brigades in the city, in order to achieve Israel's war goals of dismantling Hamas' military capabilities and its ability to rule Gaza.

“It is not imminent, but it must be done,” he said of the operation.

He added that doing so without evacuating civilians would be “almost impossible,” meaning civilians in Rafah would have to be relocated. Netanyahu said in an interview with ABC News that aired on Sunday that Israel is “developing a detailed plan” to do so, though he did not provide details.

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Mr. Dichter suggested that Gazans be moved to the area west of Rafah along the seashore. Mr. Amidror suggested other options, including some areas in central Gaza where the army is not yet active, or the nearby city of Khan Yunis, once Israel ends its campaign there.

Gabe Sobelman Contributed to reports.