Israel poised to invade Rafah, where more than 1 million Gazans take shelter: Reports

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Israel appeared poised to launch a military offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza, where more than one million Palestinians have taken shelter – and which Israel says is the last remaining bastion of Hamas in the battered coastal enclave.

The timing of an attack now awaits approval by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet, Israeli and Western media reported, as some observers believe that President Joe Biden’s opposition to an assault has softened.

In March, Biden warned that an invasion of Rafah would be a “mistake,” but last week the White House said the U.S. and Israel have a “shared objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah.”

"We've had really mixed messages in the administration's stance on Rafah," said Allison McManus, an analyst at the Center for American Progress. "We see these verbal signals of restraint, while sending all kinds of weapons to Israel."

More: 'It's either Israel or Hamas': Netanyahu defends planned assault on Rafah

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday the administration had told the Israeli government as recently as last week that “there is a different way to go about dealing with the Hamas threat in Rafah” besides a full-fledged invasion.

Sullivan wouldn't speculate when Israel might move on Rafah, noting a wide range of signals coming from Netanyahu’s government.

“You hear a lot of different public comments − from different Israeli officials, different media reports, some on the record, some off the record, some on background − circling dates, stating what's going to happen definitively, changing what's going to happen definitively,” he said.

'Moving ahead'

A spokesperson Netanyahu's government said Israel was "moving ahead" with a ground operation, but gave no timeline, Reuters reported. An unnamed Israeli defense official told the news outlet that Israel had bought 40,000 tents, each able to hold between 10 and 12 people, to house Palestinians evacuated from Rafah.

Aid groups warn that an attack on the southern city, wedged between the Egyptian and Israeli borders, would be catastrophic. The U.S. and the U.N. have warned of famine and malnutrition in Gaza, while aid groups say relief supplies are a trickle compared to the territory's needs after six months of war.

“You will have more famine. You will have more people dying from a lack of medical aid and medical supplies,” Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the aid group MedGlobal, told USA TODAY. With Rafah and the surrounding areas packed with tent cities, any assault would lead to “a bloodbath,” he said.

Axios, citing an unnamed American official, reported last week that Israel was planning a gradual operation that would see neighborhoods evacuated in stages ahead of military incursions.

More: Israel hammers north Gaza as Hamas calls for escalation and US warns of famine

Where those evacuees will land is an open question. Gazans fleeing combat and bombardment from elsewhere in the enclave have created a sprawling tent city running from Rafah to the Mediterranean seafront — a formerly empty quarter lacking electricity and water and sewer lines.

“I don’t know where all of these people will go to,” said Sahloul, whose Chicago-based group runs more than a dozen clinics in Gaza.

"Clearly, the Biden Administration has been trying for months to hit the breaks on a Rafah invasion" over concerns about civilian casualties, said Matt Duss, a vice-president at the Center for International Policy. "If the Israeli military has planned something much more targeted, that's a different story."

A new tent camp appeared to be going up in the central city of Khan Younis, which has been 80% destroyed by fighting.

The Gaza war started Oct. 7, when Hama rampaged across southern Israel, killing 1,200 and taking 253 hostages. Since then more than 30,000 Palestinians have died in Israeli air strikes and artillery fire, according to Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry.

Contributing: Reuters

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel ready to invade Rafah in southern Gaza, reports say