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Israel's Rafah offensive: What you need to know

Andreas Noll | Stephanie Höppner
May 6, 2024

Israel has told Palestinians to evacuate parts of Rafah ahead of an expected assault. For months, the Israeli army has been preparing for an offensive in the city despite warnings from aid organizations and allies.

Palestinians migrate towards Khan Younis with few belonging
Palestinians living in Gaza have begun evacuating parts of Rafah ahead of an expected assault by IsraelImage: Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu/picture alliance

When will the Rafah offensive begin?

Discussions about a possible military offensive on Rafah, a city in southern Gaza, have been ongoing in Israel since early February. Israeli media reports in late April said troops had finished their preparations for the ground offensive. All that remained was for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give the word.

After the failure of indirect negotiations with Hamas regarding a cease-fire and the release of hostages in return for Palestinian prisoners over the weekend, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said military action was required in Rafah, and there was "no other alternative," according to news agencies.

On Monday, the Israeli army ordered 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate parts of the city ahead of a "limited" operation against "terrorist forces," including Hamas, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by the German government, the EU, the US and some Arab states. Since then it has told more Palestinians to leave the area. 

Some of the hostages taken by Hamas in October 2023 are thought to be held in Rafah.

A woman cooks outside her makeshift shelter at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah
Aid groups have issued warning after warning about the risk of famine in GazaImage: -/AFP/Getty Images

Civilians have been told to go to the town of al-Mawasi near the coast, around 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) north of Rafah, to an "expanded humanitarian area" with field hospitals, tents and food.

In April, the Israeli army said it had purchased 40,000 tents to prepare for evacuation ahead of its planned ground offensive. 

On Monday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it would use leaflets, phone calls and text messages to inform people in Gaza where to go. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the IDF plans to "proceed in phases" evacuating neighborhoods in advance before moving onto new areas. 

Army officials recently estimated about six weeks of "continuous fighting" would be necessary.

In recent months, several of Israel's allies, including the US, have warned against an offensive in Rafah. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from other areas of Gaza are currently in the overcrowded city, and the situation for the local population is already catastrophic.

What's the situation for people on the ground in Rafah?

More than 80% of Gaza's total population of 2.3 million has been displaced since Israel began its assault in October 2023. The majority of the housing and infrastructure in the coastal enclave has already been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. With the IDF in control of northern Gaza, up to 1.4 million people have sought refuge in Rafah, which is now the most densely populated city in Gaza.

Palestinians fight to survive amid Cairo cease-fire talks

Refugee camps in the area around Rafah are full. Food, medicine and drinking water are in short supply, with aid shipments blocked from entering. In southern Gaza, nearly a quarter of the population has been affected by catastrophic food insecurity, with children bearing the brunt.

In a guest article for the British daily newspaper The Guardian on May 1, UNICEF global spokesperson James Elder warned of the consequences of a strike on Rafah, saying the city would "implode if it is targeted militarily."

"A military offensive in Rafah will be catastrophic because it is a city of children — some 600,000 of them." 

Why is Rafah important for Israel?

Israel believes Rafah is the last stronghold of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. On October 7, Hamas members attacked Israel, resulting in the deaths of around 1,200 people. Around 240 people were taken to Gaza as hostages.

Israel has claimed that up to four of the 24 Hamas brigades are still hiding in or under Rafah. Hamas has been weakened by seven months of fighting with Israel but hasn't been defeated militarily. Although the number of rocket attacks on Israel has fallen sharply, they haven't stopped completely.

An Israeli analyst previously told DW that Israel has, to date, destroyed 70-80% of Hamas' arsenal, a figure that could not be independently verified.

How has Israel said it will protect civilians in Rafah?

It's unclear how the already suffering population of Gaza will receive supplies during the ground offensive. While allies have warned of catastrophe, an IDF spokesperson said the supply of humanitarian aid to the local population would continue during the evacuation operation. The idea is that this should be brought to the enclave via the Israeli port of Ashdod, which is some 30 kilometers (about 18.5 miles) to the north.

Israel has temporarily closed border crossings to humanitarian transports and it remains unclear when these will reopen. 

The US has built a temporary port off the coast of the northern Gaza Strip, to facilitate the delivery of aid supplies to the civilian population.

Around 1,000 US soldiers are currently guarding the site.

What has been the international reaction?

Hamas has spoken of a "dangerous escalation that will have consequences." According to Israel, Hamas has prepared its fighters and supplied them with provisions and weapons.

Meanwhile, the US continues to press for a peaceful solution. According to media reports, CIA Director William Burns is still hoping for a deal.

In February, US President Joe Biden called on the Israeli prime minister not to begin the offensive without a convincing plan to protect the civilian population.

A view of tents seen from above in Rafah
Hundreds of thousands are already living in makeshift camps in RafahImage: Bassam Masoud/REUTERS

In mid-April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ruled out American support for such an operation. "We cannot support a major military operation in Rafah," he said, adding that this would have "terrible consequences" for people.

The German Foreign Ministry has also warned that an assault could lead to a "humanitarian catastrophe."

Egypt fears many refugees could cross over from Rafah, a border city,  into the Egyptian region of Sinai.

This article was originally written in German and published on April 27, 2024. It was updated on May 11 to reflect the latest developments.