Israel says 'moving ahead' with Rafah operation in Gaza

Rubble from bombing in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where Israel has repeatedly threatened to send in ground troops (-)
Rubble from bombing in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where Israel has repeatedly threatened to send in ground troops (-)

Israel said Wednesday it is "moving ahead" with its planned operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite international outcry over fears for the 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering there.

"Israel is moving ahead with our operation to target Hamas in Rafah," government spokesman David Mencer told a press briefing.

"The four battalions which remain in Rafah cannot be shielded from Israel. They will be attacked."

Mencer added that "two reserve brigades" had been mobilised "for defensive and tactical missions in Gaza" against the Palestinian Islamist movement.

Since Israel's ground invasion began in Gaza on October 27, "at least 18 or 19 of Hamas's 24 battalions" have been destroyed, he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel will press ahead with the threatened assault on Rafah, the last major population centre in Gaza that Israeli ground troops have yet to enter.

The hawkish premier has said that the destruction of the remaining four Hamas battalions in Rafah is vital to his government's war aim of destroying the Islamist group in Gaza.

A majority of Gaza's 2.4 million people have taken refuge in Rafah, many sheltering in makeshift encampments.

Countries including Israel's top ally the United States have warned Israel against sending troops into Rafah, fearing huge civilian casualties.

"A full-scale military invasion of Rafah would have an enormously harmful effect" on civilians trapped there and "would ultimately hurt Israel's security", US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said earlier this month.

Red Cross official Fabrizio Carboni said humanitarian groups had no knowledge of reported plans to move Rafah's residents away from the city ahead of the assault.

"There is no condition for a military operation without devastating humanitarian consequences," he told AFP on Tuesday.

Hamas wants a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, which at this stage is unacceptable to Netanyahu, who has vowed to "eliminate" all Hamas battalions.

Mencer said that "at least 26,000 terrorists were killed, apprehended, or wounded on the battlefield" during the war in Gaza so far.

The war broke out after Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of 1,170 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed 34,262 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.