Rafah in Israel’s sights as next Gaza moves loom

An IDF soldier looks through his rifle sight in Gaza. (IDF)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel will target the southern Gaza city of Rafah, the last major area held by Hamas in Gaza. “It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Netanyahu said on February 9. Momentum has been building for weeks as Israel considers its next steps in Gaza and faces building pressure to forego an operation in Rafah.

Netanyahu said that “intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.” In using the word “intense,” he appears to refer to the shift Israel made to a lower-intensity form of conflict in Gaza in January. Israel defeated Hamas in northern Gaza in November and in December sent paratroopers and commandos into the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. Khan Younis was the headquarters of several key Hamas battalions and commanders. Some of the 136 hostages held in Gaza were held in Khan Younis, and the IDF continues to uncover additional tunnels there as well as evidence that Hamas used them to hold hostages.

Israel will now seek a “plan for evacuating the population and destroying the battalions,” Netanyahu said. Reports suggest that there are up to one million Gazans sheltering in and around Rafah. Three-quarters of Hamas battalions, which amounted to 24 when it attacked Israel on October 7, have been defeated, according to Israeli estimates. That would leave several battalions consisting of thousands of men remaining in Rafah .

Rafah, a key conduit for humanitarian aid into Gaza that sits on the Egyptian border, has historically been a site of smuggling into Gaza, including weapons. Rafah is only three miles from Khan Younis where the IDF has been operating for two months. It is connected via a road to the Mawasi area which was established as a humanitarian area for Gazans to flee to in October when the IDF began its ground offensive in Gaza.

On February 9, the IDF provided new details on operations in Khan Younis. It said one reservist brigade was involved in “targeted raids on terrorist infrastructure, encountering the enemy, eliminating terrorists and locating many weapons.” This unit “located rocket launchers placed by Hamas terrorists near a kindergarten and mosque. The launchers, loaded and aimed at the territory of the State of Israel, were destroyed by the forces. Additionally, during searches of a civilian water facility in the area, the forces found a tunnel shaft leading to an underground tunnel route inside the facility.” The destruction of the launcher is part of a wider campaign that has seen rocket fire from Gaza reduced to near-zero in recent weeks. Hamas began its war on Israel with thousands of rocket launches but four months later has few remaining long-range rockets and places from which to fire them.

The IDF also said that special forces “raided a compound in the area used by Hamas terrorists to carry out attacks on IDF troops. Additionally, IDF troops identified a terrorist cell that planted explosive devices near the troops operating in the area. Following their identification, IDF troops directed an aircraft to “strike and eliminate the terrorist cell,” the IDF said. The IDF reports often refer to uncovering AK-47s and ammunition, a contrast to earlier in the war when weapons caches uncovered included heavier weapons like RPGs along with mines and other threats.

IDF soldiers I spoke with who served in Gaza said that weapons are often found in civilian residences, illustrating the tendency for Hamas to turn entire communities into weapons depots as well as areas from which they fight. The IDF also said on February 9 that they conducted an operation in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, as Hamas continues to try and infiltrate areas in the north where it was defeated in November.

Reporting from Israel, Seth J. Frantzman is an adjunct fellow at FDD and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. He is the acting news editor and senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post. 


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