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Why is Israel planning a Rafah offensive and what would it mean?

Published 02/13/2024, 07:10 AM
Updated 02/13/2024, 12:31 PM
© Reuters. Displaced Palestinians try to get internet service on their phones through the Egyptian networks to communicate with their relatives, near the border with Egypt, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip February 1, 2024. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/file photo

(Reuters) -Israel is planning to expand its ground assault into the city of Rafah, where over 1 million Palestinians have sought refuge from the Israel offensive that has laid waste to much of the Gaza Strip since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

Israeli air strikes have in recent days started hitting Rafah, which is in the south of the Gaza Strip and abuts the Egyptian border.

WHY IS ISRAEL PLANNING A GROUND OFFENSIVE IN RAFAH?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described Rafah as the "last bastion" of Hamas, with four battalions of gunmen, and that Israel cannot achieve its goal of eliminating the group while they remain there.

Israel has sought to wipe out Hamas since it led the Oct. 7 attack which killed around 1,200 people and resulted in another 253 being abducted into Gaza, according to Israeli tallies.

The Israeli military has already swept through most of Gaza, in a campaign that has killed more than 28,000 people, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE IN RAFAH AND HOW ARE CONDITIONS THERE?

UNRWA, a U.N. agency which provides Palestinians with aid and essential services, says there are nearly 1.5 million people in Rafah, six times the population compared to before Oct. 7.

Many of them are camped on the streets, in empty lots, on the beach and on the sandy strip of territory next to the border wall with Egypt. Others are jammed into filthy, overcrowded shelters.

Doctors and aid workers are struggling to supply even basic aid and stop the spread of disease. The Norwegian Refugee Council has called it a "gigantic refugee camp".

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A doctor who recently left Gaza described Rafah as a "closed jail" with faecal matter running through streets so crowded that there is barely space for medics' vehicles to pass.

WHERE WOULD DISPLACED PEOPLE GO?

Israel ordered civilians to flee south before previous assaults on cities in the Gaza Strip, with many of them heading to Rafah.

Netanyahu's office has said it has ordered the army to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah.

But aid officials and foreign governments say there is nowhere for them to go. Egypt has said it will not allow an exodus of Palestinian refugees to cross into its territory.

HOW HAVE OTHER COUNTRIES RESPONDED TO THE PLANS?

U.S. President Joe Biden has told Netanyahu that Israel should not proceed with an operation in Rafah without a plan to ensure the safety of people sheltering there.

Other allies of Israel, including Britain and Germany, have expressed concern about the prospect of an offensive in Rafah.

Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot has said it was "hard to see how large-scale operations in such a densely populated area would not lead to many civilian casualties and a bigger humanitarian catastrophe", calling it "unjustifiable".

Egypt has warned of "dire consequences".

Israel says it takes extensive measures to protect civilians but is forced to conduct military operations in civilian areas because Hamas operates there.

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