IDF asks Gazans to evacuate eastern Rafah ahead of offensive

A map released by the Israel Defense Forces shows the expanded humanitarian zone to which it is asking civilians in eastern Rafah to move. (IDF)

The Israel Defense Forces asked residents of eastern Rafah in southern Gaza to evacuate to a designated humanitarian area in Gaza. Throughout the war against Hamas, which began with Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, Israel has often warned Gazans to evacuate certain areas before the IDF would enter and fight Hamas.

The current plan calls on almost 100,000 people in Rafah to move northeast, basically toward an area of Khan Younis north of the Salah al-Din road. The Salah al-Din road runs from southern Gaza to Gaza City. It essentially divides the strip in half. Now, it is a dividing line for the expanded humanitarian area that Israel has signaled is designated for civilians in Gaza.

The expanded humanitarian area is an outgrowth of the Mawasi area, which was established along the coast of Gaza just northeast of Rafah. That area is an open area that was designed to enable easy access to civilians and the establishment of field hospitals. Now an expanded humanitarian zone takes in built-up areas of Khan Younis. Khan Younis was once run by a brigade of Hamas fighters and was home to Hamas’ key leadership in Gaza. The IDF operated in Khan Younis from December 2023 to early April 2024. Now that the IDF has left, it is plausible that Hamas in addition to civilians could move back there.

“There has been a surge of humanitarian aid going into Gaza. The IDF has expanded the humanitarian area in Al- Mawasi to accommodate the increased levels of aid flowing into Gaza. This expanded humanitarian area includes field hospitals, tents and increased amounts of food, water, medication and additional supplies,” the IDF said on the morning of May 6. The decision came less than 24 hours after Hamas launched ten projectiles at IDF forces near the Israeli community of Kerem Shalom. Kerem Shalom is also the name of the border crossing in southern Gaza near the Egyptian border. It is this area that much of the aid to Gaza has been routed through during the war.

The decision to evacuate civilians appears to foreshadow the long-awaited IDF offensive into Rafah. Israeli leaders have been talking about operating in Rafah for months, but the issue has become a domestic political football and has faced international opposition. Hamas is believed to have up to four battalions of fighters inside Rafah. This area along the Egyptian border has also had tunnels that have enabled Hamas smuggling. It is not clear how extensive the tunnel network is today. Additionally when Israel operated along this route in the early 2000s, the IDF had found weapons manufacturing tools, and it is likely Hamas continues to manufacture weapons in Rafah. Hamas has said several times it has carried out attacks using 114mm munitions. These are being made or imported using some method by Hamas either recently or stockpiled over previous years.

The IDF said on May 6 that it “will continue pursuing Hamas everywhere in Gaza until all the hostages that they’re holding in captivity are back home.” Israeli warplanes also struck an area in Rafah where rockets had been fired on May 5. The IDF also dropped color-coded fliers over Rafah and other parts of Gaza indicating humanitarian areas where residents should go. For example, the blue flier told residents about an expanded humanitarian zone near Deir al-Balah and warned them that  “Gaza City is a dangerous fighting zone; avoid crossing to the north of Wadi Gaza. It is prohibited to come near the eastern and southern security fences.” This indicates that the IDF does not want these residents moving from the existing humanitarian area toward northern Gaza.

The IDF continues to control an area across Gaza just south of Gaza City called the Netzarim corridor. Some Gazans have returned to northern Gaza after fleeing in October and November 2023. It is not clear how many Gazans are currently in Rafah, but some estimates over the last months say between one and 1.5 million.

Israeli calls for civilian evacuation from Rafah led Hamas to tell pro-Iranian Al-Mayadeen media that ceasefire talks would end, but they later said they accepted a new ceasefire deal presented by Egypt and Qatar. Pro-Iran media additionally reported that a battle in Rafah could lead to a regional escalation.

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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