Conquering Rafah in southernmost Gaza is essential to defeating Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated, amid intense international pressure against the pending operation.
“Victory is within reach. We’re going to do it. We’re going to get the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah, which is the last bastion, but we’re going to do it,” the premier told ABC News in an interview airing on Sunday.
According to Israel, there are four Hamas battalions positioned in the city along the Egyptian border, the population of which has swelled to some 1.5 million, more than half of Gaza’s total of 2.3 million, after the Israel Defense Forces directed northern Gazans to a humanitarian zone there when fighting began in October.
The massive civilian population relocated there since the start of the ground war almost four months ago has alarmed Washington and Brussels, with Netanyahu attempting to allay concerns about noncombatants getting caught in the crossfire.
“In this, I agree with the Americans,” Netanyahu told “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” co-anchor Jonathan Karl. “We are going to do it [invade Rafah] while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave.”
Netanyahu had ordered the IDF and the security establishment to submit to the Cabinet a combined plan to evacuate civilians and destroy the battalions, stressing that it is “impossible” to win the war without taking Rafah, The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement on Friday.
When pressed on the plan by Karl, Netanyahu suggested places that the military has cleared north of Rafah as a temporary destination for the civilians, saying that there are “plenty of areas there.”
He continued: “We have worked out a detailed plan to do so. And that’s what we have done up to now. We are not cavalier about this. This is part of our war effort, to get civilians out of harm’s way. It’s part of Hamas’s effort to keep them in harm’s way. But we’ve so far succeeded and we are going to succeed again.”
Israeli forces have been engaged in intense battles in the Hamas stronghold of Khan Yunis for weeks and are preparing to head to Rafah next, with just eight miles separating the two cities. Last week, Netanyahu said that 18 out of 24 Hamas battalions had been destroyed, underscoring the importance of not leaving a haven for the Hamas terrorists on the Gaza-Egyptian border.
Hamas started the war on Oct. 7 with its invasion of the northwestern Negev, murdering 1,200 mostly civilians, wounding thousands more and kidnapping 253 people, with 136 hostages remaining in Gaza (at least 32 are dead and another 20 may no longer be alive). Israeli forces began their ground offensive in Gaza on Oct. 27, determined to topple the terrorist group that has ruled the coastal enclave since 2007.
In recent days, the rhetoric in foreign capitals has ramped up in opposition to a Rafah military campaign. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned on Saturday that it “would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt.” He then advocated in his X message a return to negotiations for the release of hostages and the cessation of hostilities as “the only way to avert a bloodshed.”
Israel’s Abraham Accords peace partner the United Arab Emirates on Friday warned against an IDF operation in Rafah, joining Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, while Bahrain normalized relations with the Jewish state as part of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Israel has high hopes that Riyadh will follow suit but the current Hamas war has put that effort on the backburner.
On Thursday, the United States said it would not support a Rafah offensive without a plan to evacuate civilians, which prompted Netanyahu to issue the statement on Friday emphasizing that such a plan will be in place ahead of the operation.
“I could tell you that—absent any full consideration of protecting civilians at that scale in Gaza—military operations right now would be a disaster for those people, and it’s not something that we would support,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House.
Citing a senior Biden administration official, NBC News journalist Andrea Mitchell reported on Sunday that there is an increasing rift between the U.S. and Netanyahu highlighted by the looming Rafah assault.
“The U.S. believes Israel is not yet ready for a ground offensive that would spare the civilian population,” Mitchell wrote.
Netanyahu in the ABC News interview pushed back against those completely against an Israeli military operation in Rafah.
“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah, are basically saying, ‘Lose the war, keep Hamas there,'” he said.
Still, the Israeli leader has reportedly acknowledged that the severe scrutiny being put on the Rafah campaign means that it will be a time-constrained operation.
According to a Friday report by Israel’s Channel 12, Netanyahu told the War Cabinet that the IDF will have one month to finish the Rafah operation, setting a completion date before the onset of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.
Further to the report, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said at the War Cabinet meeting that the military was ready to proceed with the Rafah operation, but that the government first needed to decide on a plan for the civilian population. Halevi also pressed the government for its plans for the Philadelphi Corridor, the 8.7-mile security and buffer zone that runs the entire length of the Egypt-Gaza border and is a critical arms smuggling route for Hamas, with many tunnels running underneath it.
Tensions between Jerusalem and Cairo have ratcheted up in recent weeks over possible military action at the Egypt-Gaza border, in particular over concern by the al-Sisi government about an influx of refugees from Gaza pouring into the Sinai. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Cairo even warned Jerusalem that the Rafah operation could endanger the decades-long peace treaty.
However, Army Radio reported on Sunday that senior Egyptian officials have told their Israeli counterparts that they won’t oppose a Rafah campaign if measures are taken to avoid civilian casualties, contradicting the public statements coming out of Cairo against Israeli troops heading to Gaza’s southernmost city to dismantle Hamas.
The Egyptians are also working to beef up security at the Gaza border, sending some 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai within the past two weeks, Reuters reported on Friday, citing two Egyptian security officials.
Egypt has taken additional security measures at the border since Oct. 7, the security sources said, including constructing a 20-foot-deep concrete barrier topped with barbed wire while building berms and enhancing surveillance at border posts.