analysisIsrael at War

Eastern Rafah evacuation part of phased dismantlement of last Hamas bastion

Former senior intelligence officer: A completed Rafah operation can be game-changer for hostage talks and the day-after in Gaza

IDF troops operate in Gaza City, Nov. 20, 2023. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
IDF troops operate in Gaza City, Nov. 20, 2023. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

The Israel Defense Forces is pursuing a staged operation to dismantle Hamas’s last stronghold in Rafah, southern Gaza.

 The IDF on Monday began evacuating some 100,000 civilians from eastern Rafah and announced the widening of the humanitarian zone at Al-Mawasi, on the Gaza coastline, to accommodate increased levels of aid flowing into the Strip. The area includes new field hospitals and increased quantities of food, water and medication. The IDF also fixed a waterline leading directly to this area.

According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the Research and Assessment Division of IDF Military Intelligence and currently a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the order to begin evacuation came after a lengthy process aimed at “accumulating legitimacy” for an Israeli operation.

“There is finally some [international] legitimacy to some extent, due in part to Hamas’s problematic stance in the [hostage negotiation] talks, and because of the mortar barrage shelling, which killed four IDF soldiers, and was launched from close to a civilian population, and close to Rafah Crossing,” said Kuperwasser. This provided additional legitimacy for the Israeli operation in Rafah to begin, he added.

“There is no choice but to carry it out. In the end, it probably needs to be done gradually to preserve this legitimacy,” Kuperwasser added.

The first stage of the operation will focus on evacuating civilians, before the military enters eastern Rafah, in an area of the city that is closest to the Israeli border.

“This is also a kind of pilot, in the sense that if we manage to conduct this operation and also cause heavy damage to Hamas forces deployed in this space while avoiding hitting civilians as much as possible—it’s clear this will be a central effort in the operation—then it will be possible to expand the operation later on,” Kuperwasser said.

The four Hamas battalions in place are no different from the other 19 enemy battalions that Israel dismantled since its ground offensive in Gaza, launched on Oct.27, he added, but the difference is that Egypt is in close proximity, as are many civilian aid agencies.

“This is the last Hamas fortress. Hamas will likely try to defend it ferociously. There could be more terrorists in addition to the original four Hamas battalions,” he added.

At the same time, Rafah will feature many of the same challenges that the IDF already overcame in Gaza City and Khan Yunis, such as underground terrorist infrastructure and a terrorist army entrenched in civilian areas.

“I don’t think Hamas’s deployment in Rafah is substantially different from its deployment in other places. There is of course the issue of tunnels leading to Egypt, which was absent in other areas of Gaza,” said Kuperwasser.

Hamas’s leadership could try to use them to escape to Sinai, an effort that the Egyptians may not find so easy to stop, he cautioned.

Once the operation gets into full swing, Israel will have new pressure levers to apply in negotiations for the release of hostages, said Kuperwasser.

“If we show this can be done without large civilian casualties, Hamas will likely be under pressure from the prospect of Israel completing the operation, and it losing Gaza,” Kuperwasser said. “In that sense, this operation could be a game changer, both regarding the question of hostages, and the question of the day-after in Gaza.”

Gradual plan

Speaking on Monday, IDF Spokesman to the international media Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani said the latest moves are part of operational plans approved by the Israeli War Cabinet.

“We are going to have situational assessments and will operate according to this gradual plan. And this is part of our endeavors to dismantle Hamas that, as we saw yesterday, is still active in shooting from Rafah,” Shoshani said.

The IDF Southern Command’s Population Evacuation Unit leads these efforts. The unit uses an advanced digital map that divides Gaza into more than 600 polygons, enabling evacuations from very specific areas. A green polygon on the unit’s digital map means over 75% of the population has left, enabling ground forces to move in.

The Rafah operation is expected to involve significant air and artillery strikes and tank movements.

 The military began issuing calls to Gazans move to the humanitarian areas through airdropped flyers, text messages, phone calls and media broadcasts in Arabic.

Shoshani described an evacuation operation limited in scope to temporarily move residents from the eastern part of Rafah, stressing that this was not a general evacuation of the city.

The amount of aid going into Gaza in the upcoming days is not going to change, Shoshani said, adding that aid is flowing through Route 96—built by Israel in March to enable trucks to enter northern Gaza directly from Israel, airdrops, as well as goods unloaded from ships at Ashdod Port, while the Kerem Shalom Crossing in southern Gaza has been temporarily closed following Sunday’s deadly mortar attack there by Hamas. The mortar attack was carried out from Rafah.

“We are calling on the people of Gaza, of the people of the eastern parts of Rafah to move north to the expanded humanitarian area,” said Shoshani.

Rafah is a densely populated urban area. The military will aim to attack Hamas targets from the air and the ground using its many sensors and precise firepower.

The operation is expected to involve the 98th Paratroopers Division, which led the four-month operation in Khan Yunis, and the 162nd Armored Division, which spent six months fighting in central Gaza and setting up the Netzarim Corridor separating northern and southern Gaza.

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