MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
People inspect the damage in the rubble of a mosque following an Israeli bombardment, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, February 12, 2024, amid ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas.
MIDDLE EAST – The last refuge of Gazans is now the object of all attention and all concern. Last week, after more than 120 days of war between Israel and , the Israeli Prime Minister ordered his army to prepare an offensive on .
However, since the IDF has carried out military operations in the north of the Gaza Strip, it is in this southern city, bordering Egypt and the only humanitarian crossing point, that the majority of the population of the Gaza Strip is currently massed. Palestinian territory, according to the UN.
During the night from Sunday to Monday February 12, Israeli strikes hit Rafah and allowed recovery. The Hamas Ministry of Health reported “about 100 dead” in these bombings. It was not clear, however, whether these mark the start of the offensive that Netanyahu has called for to take over. “last bastion” of the “Hamas terrorists”. Here is what we know so far about the operation in preparation.
• Why an offensive against Rafah?
Since the deadly attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7 which left nearly 1,200 dead, Israel has promised to destroy the terrorist movement by carrying out military operations in the Gaza Strip – starting in the north of the territory. While at the beginning of November, the territory was cut in two, the IDF, which ordered the evacuation of the upper part, advanced little by little towards the south. For several months, the Israeli army has focused in particular on Khan Younes, just north of Rafah.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant assured last Thursday that his troops had finished dismantling the Hamas brigade in Khan Yunis and that it would now concentrate its operations on Rafah. “ It is impossible to achieve the objective of the war without eliminating Hamas and leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” argued Benjamin Netanyahu in particular.
Map of the Gaza Strip with the number of IDPs in collective centers, by governorate, according to Shelter Cluster data as of January 22
• When will the offensive take place?
For the moment, Yoav Gallant refuses to mention any date for this offensive. However, according to the newspaper HaaretzNetanyahu would like it to take place before mid-March, when Ramadan is due to begin.
A purposefully blurred temporality? Questioned by our colleagues from , Yossi Mekelberg, associate member of the Chatham House think tank, based in London, does not rule out the hypothesis that the announcement of this operation could be a form of strategy and force Hamas to negotiate . “If this is not a tactic, we can probably expect the highest daily death toll since the war began,” he fears.
• What will happen to the Rafah refugees?
According to the UN, most of the 1.4 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are now refugees in Rafah. A military offensive in this urban center which has become a gigantic encampment, and where the Israeli army has not yet penetrated, has made the international community fear the worst. Especially since Rafah had until now been marked as a “safe zone” by Israel, without this preventing the city from being affected by bombings, famine, lack of care, electricity, or foodstuffs.
If, on Friday February 9, Benjamin Netanyahu requested a “combined plan” of“evacuation” civilians from Rafah and “combat zones”and of ” destruction “ of Hamas, questions remain about the places where Gazans from Rafah could take refuge, where the population density has exploded as shown by the NGO Amnesty International on X (formerly Twitter).
“Satellite images of rural Rafah show a mass of tents and other temporary structures erected since mid-October. In the urban areas of Rafah, a mass of people and new temporary structures are visible on the streets.”
According to , the area which is currently favored by the IDF as an evacuation territory is that of Al-Mawasi, a coastal region in the south of the Gaza Strip, and not measuring more than 16 square km, i.e. penalty “the size of Ben Gurion Airport”. The Israeli daily also calculated that if a million people actually took refuge in this area, the density would then be more than 60,000 people per square kilometer. Only solution : “whether people are kneeling or standing”.
For his part, Netanyahu suggested over the weekend on ABC News that the residents of Rafah could also return to the north. While many people are injured, there are also concerns about the delay that the Israeli army will give to the population of Rafah. Mid-October.
• Egypt is also preparing for the offensive
Due to its proximity to Rafah, Egypt fears that many Gazans will cross the border to seek refuge in Sinai. Cairo could even put the Camp David agreements, essential to regional stability for 50 years, in the balance if Rafah becomes a place of fighting. This weekend, Egypt massed dozens of tanks on the border.
For its part, Washington warned that “under current conditions”, the United States could not “support a military operation in Rafah due to the population density”.
As for Hamas, it warned that an Israeli offensive against Rafah would dash the hopes of the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip. Israel estimates that around 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, 29 of whom are believed to have died, out of around 250 people kidnapped in Israel on October 7.
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