Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu directs military to plan for 'evacuation of the population' from Rafah

A crowded street in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza, where it's believed about 1.3 million people are.
A crowded street in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza, where it's believed about 1.3 million people are. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has directed the country's military to plan for the "evacuation of the population" from Rafah, his office said in a statement on Saturday, ahead of an anticipated ground assault on the southern Gaza city.

More than 1.3 million people are believed to be in Rafah, the majority displaced from other parts of Gaza, according to the United Nations.

Netanyahu on Friday said that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would "soon go into Rafah, Hamas's last bastion."

Many Palestinians have trekked through the enclave and taken refuge in the city as the IDF's campaign has moved south through Gaza.

But it is unclear where next they could go; the city borders Egypt to the south, but the border into the country has been closed for months.

In the statement, the Israeli Prime Minister's Office said that it was not possible to both eliminate Hamas and leave "four Hamas battalions in Rafah."

"On the other hand, it is clear that a massive operation in Rafah requires the evacuation of the civilian population from the combat zones."

"That is why the Prime Minister directed the IDF and the defense establishment to bring to the Cabinet a dual plan for both the evacuation of the population and the disbanding of the battalions."

Rafah is the last major population center in Gaza not occupied by the IDF.

It has rapidly become home to a huge population of displaced Palestinians. Satellite images showed this week how a tent city in Rafah has swelled in size in just a few weeks, as more Gazans descend on the area to escape the IDF's campaign.

The top commander in charge of Israel's military operation in southern Gaza told CNN on Sunday that there was no plan in place yet for how to minimize civilian deaths in the city. Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfuss, who oversees the IDF's 98th Division, said that he would work on such a plan "if and when" he receives the order to maneuver his forces into the area, and that as of Sunday, the order had not been issued yet.

A spokesperson for the United States State Department said Friday that the US would not support an Israeli military operation in Rafah "without serious planning."

Rafah's tent city in February 2024.
Rafah's tent city in February 2024. Photo credit: Maxar Technologies (via CNN).

"To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster," Deputy State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel said at a press briefing Friday.

Later on Friday, President Biden offered one of his sharpest rebukes to date of Israel's military conduct saying the operation to go after Hamas had been "over the top."

"I'm of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza – in the Gaza Strip – has been over the top," Biden told reporters at the White House, describing his own efforts to open up Gaza so more humanitarian aid could flow in.

"I've been pushing really hard – really hard – to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza. A lot of innocent people are starving. A lot innocent people in trouble and dying. And it's got to stop," Biden said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) meanwhile said in a press release Friday that Rafah could soon turn "into a zone of bloodshed and destruction that people won't be able to escape."