By Samia Nakhoul, Jonathan Saul and Humeyra Pamuk

DOHA (Reuters) – Israel expects to proceed full-scale navy operations in Gaza for an additional six to eight weeks because it prepares to mount a floor invasion of the enclave’s southernmost metropolis of Rafah, 4 officers acquainted with the technique mentioned.

Navy chiefs imagine they will considerably injury Hamas’ remaining capabilities in that point, paving the best way for a shift to a lower-intensity section of focused airstrikes and particular forces operations, based on the 2 Israeli and two regional officers who requested to stay nameless to talk freely.

There’s little probability that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s authorities will heed worldwide criticism to name off a Rafah floor assault, mentioned Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official and a negotiator within the first and second Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, within the Eighties and 2000s.

“Rafah is the final bastion of Hamas management and there stay battalions in Rafah which Israel should dismantle to realize its targets on this struggle,” he added.

Protection Minister Yoav Gallant mentioned on Friday that Israel Protection Forces (IDF) have been planning operations in Rafah concentrating on Hamas fighters, command centres and tunnels, although gave no timeline for the marketing campaign. He careworn that “extraordinary measures” have been being taken to keep away from civilian casualties.

“There have been 24 regional battalions in Gaza – we have now dismantled 18 of them,” he advised a media briefing. “Now, Rafah is the following Hamas centre of gravity.”

World leaders worry a humanitarian disaster.

Trapped between the 2 sworn enemies are greater than 1,000,000 Palestinian civilians crammed into the town on the Egyptian border, with nowhere left to run, after fleeing Israeli assaults which have laid waste to a lot of the enclave.

In a previous week of excessive diplomatic rigidity, U.S. President Joe Biden phoned the Israeli chief twice to warn him in opposition to launching a navy operation in Rafah with no credible plan to make sure the security of civilians. Netanyahu himself mentioned civilians could be allowed to go away the battle zone earlier than the offensive, at the same time as he vowed “full victory”.

The IDF hasn’t defined the way it will transfer greater than 1,000,000 individuals throughout the ruins of the enclave.

In response to one Israeli safety supply and a global support official, who requested to not be recognized, Gazans could possibly be screened to weed out any Hamas fighters earlier than being despatched northwards. A separate Israeli supply mentioned Israel may additionally construct a floating jetty north of Rafah to allow worldwide support and hospital ships to reach by sea.

Nonetheless, an Israeli defence official mentioned Palestinians would not be allowed to return to north Gaza en masse, leaving scrubland round Rafah as an choice for makeshift tent cities. The regional officers additionally mentioned it would not be secure to maneuver a lot of individuals right into a northern zone with no energy and operating water which hasn’t been cleared of unexploded ordinance.

Washington is sceptical Israel has made adequate preparations for a safe civilian evacuation, a number of officers acquainted with the conversations between the 2 governments mentioned. Biden mentioned on Friday he did not count on a “huge” Israeli floor invasion to occur quickly.

Moreover, based on Hamas, the overall victory promised by Netanyahu will not be fast or straightforward.

A Hamas official primarily based in Qatar advised Reuters that the group estimated it had misplaced 6,000 fighters throughout the four-month-old battle, half the 12,000 Israel says it has killed.

Gaza’s ruling group can preserve preventing and is ready for a protracted struggle in Rafah and Gaza, mentioned the official, who requested anonymity.

“Netanyahu’s choices are tough and ours are too. He can occupy Gaza however Hamas continues to be standing and preventing. He hasn’t achieved his targets to kill the Hamas management or annihilate Hamas,” he added.


Hamas triggered the battle on Oct. 7 final yr when its fighters burst out of the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, killing 1,200 individuals and seizing 253 hostages. The shock assault prompted an enormous retaliatory Israeli bombardment and floor invasion which have killed greater than 28,000 Palestinians.

A lot of Gaza has been decreased to rubble by Israel. Preventing continues within the southern metropolis of Khan Younis, with sporadic clashes nonetheless breaking out in northern areas supposedly cleared.

Greater than 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants have been left homeless. Many of the displaced have sought shelter in Rafah, which had a pre-war inhabitants of about 300,000.

“There isn’t a empty area in Rafah, over 1,000,000 and half individuals are right here. Does the world know that? A slaughter goes to happen if the tanks enter,” mentioned Emad Joudat, 55, who fled there together with his household early within the struggle from Gaza Metropolis, the place he ran a furnishings enterprise.

“I’m accountable for an enormous household,” mentioned the father-of-five, who lives in a tent metropolis with no meals or water in Rafah. “I really feel helpless as a result of do not know the place to go together with them if Israel launches an invasion.”

Egypt has sealed off its border to the enclave. Cairo has framed its opposition to the displacement of Palestinians from Gaza as a part of wider Arab rejection of any repeat of the “Nakba”, or “disaster”, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or have been compelled from their properties throughout the 1948 struggle that accompanied Israel’s creation.

Egypt is nonetheless making ready an space on the border that would accommodate Palestinians, as a contingency ought to an Israeli offensive into Rafah immediate an exodus throughout the frontier, three safety sources in Egypt advised Reuters, declining to be named as a result of sensitivity of the matter.

The Egyptian authorities denied making any such preparations.

Israeli Protection Minister Gallant mentioned Israel had no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt.


Melamed, the previous Israeli intelligence official and negotiator, mentioned the one potential delay to the Israeli assault on Rafah may come ought to Hamas give floor in hostage negotiations and hand over the prisoners it took on Oct. 7.

“Even that may solely delay the advance on Rafah except it’s coupled with the demilitarization of the town and give up of the Hamas battalions there,” he added.

A senior regional safety official mentioned Israel believed some Hamas commanders and hostages have been in Rafah.

This month, after weeks of negotiations, Hamas proposed a ceasefire of 4-1/2 months throughout which it will free all Israeli hostages, Israel would withdraw its troops from Gaza and an settlement could be reached on an finish to the struggle.

Netanyahu rejected the supply as “delusional”. A brand new spherical of talks involving America, Egypt, Israel and Qatar on a truce ended with no breakthrough in Cairo on Tuesday.

Senior American officers see securing a deal to launch the remaining hostages in change for an prolonged pause within the battle as one of the best path to creating area for broader talks, the U.S. sources mentioned. But they’re involved such a deal could not materialise in coming weeks and struggle will proceed into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in March and April, which may intensify world criticism of Israel’s marketing campaign, they added.

An overarching settlement to finish the battle seems distant.

Any try to kind a post-war authorities in Gaza may solely succeed if it has Hamas’ approval, based on a number of sources within the area, together with from the militant group and the Palestinian Authority, which was pushed out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007.

But one thing has to present.

Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas. And the group’s chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, will battle to the dying slightly than give up or go into exile, based on Hamas and regional officers.

Israel additionally stays against any deal involving a everlasting ceasefire or a Palestinian state, regardless of U.S. strain and worldwide outcry over civilian struggling in Gaza and the dearth of progress to an enduring peace resolution.

Since October, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made 5 visits to the area. Final month, the State Division mentioned Washington was “actively pursuing the institution of an impartial Palestinian state” with safety ensures for Israel and exploring choices with companions within the area.

UK International Secretary David Cameron additionally advised lawmakers that Britain and its allies “will have a look at the difficulty of recognising a Palestinian state, together with on the United Nations”.

Israel, the U.S. and Britain have not formally recognised Palestine, not like almost 140 different U.N. nations.

But for Netanyahu and lots of different Israeli officers, speak of a two-state resolution quantities to a betrayal of the individuals killed on Oct. 7.

“I say clearly to anybody nonetheless caught in October 6: We are going to by no means help to the creation of a Palestinian state,” Israeli Tradition Minister Miki Zohar mentioned on social media final month. “That is our pledge to the sacred homicide victims.”

(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Doha, Jonathan Saul in London and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Further reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Nidal Al Mughrabi in Cairo, Andrew Hay in Doha and Jeff Mason in Washington; Modifying by Pravin Char)

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