Israel briefs US on plan to move Gazans ahead of Rafah invasion

The Israeli military has informed aid groups and the Biden administration of a plan to begin removing Gazans from Rafah ahead of an invasion, according to a U.S. official and two other people familiar with the situation.

The Israel Defense Forces recently told the U.S. government and aid groups operating on the ground that they had developed a plan to move people out of Rafah, the main humanitarian hub in the enclave, to al-Mawasi, a small strip of land on the southern Gaza coast. The IDF sent a map of the area to aid workers this week, a copy of which POLITICO obtained.

The Biden administration has repeatedly urged Israel to avoid an invasion of Rafah unless it has a plan to protect civilians sheltering there.

The IDF told aid groups the Rafah invasion will move ahead “soon” but did not give a specific date, the two people familiar said.

The U.S. official cautioned that this is not the “final” plan from the IDF, rather “some of their latest thinking.” A second U.S. official said the Biden administration is not aware of any imminent invasion and that it is still waiting on more details from Israel on exactly how it would move people out of Rafah.

All the people were granted anonymity to detail sensitive internal planning.

This week, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. still had not seen an indication that Israel had a plan to ensure the safety of Rafah’s population.

A Pentagon spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the Defense Department had been briefed on the plan.

After this story was published, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday that the U.S. had not received a “comprehensive” plan about how it would evacuate Gazans from Rafah. Pushed for details, Jean-Pierre refused to answer questions about exactly what the Biden administration understood about Israel’s planning, but acknowledged the White House has had several conversations with Israel in recent days, some of which touched on the subject of Rafah.

The planning comes as CIA Director Williams Burns is in Cairo to meet with officials from Egypt, Qatar and Israel to try to finalize a hostage deal. Israel has ramped up its promises to invade Rafah amid those conversations. Israel has said it wants to invade Rafah in order to eliminate Hamas from southern Gaza.

The expulsion of Gazans from Rafah is expected to cause significant disruption to the distribution of humanitarian aid. And it is not clear that all the nearly 1.5 million people will be able to fit into the area designated by the Israelis. The IDF has begun ordering tents for al-Mawasi, but it has not provided the details of how it plans to safely move Gazans to the area or how it will organize them once they arrive, a third person familiar said.

The humanitarian operation in Rafah is robust, having been built up over the last seven months. Almost all of the aid groups operating in Gaza have safe houses in Rafah and have easy and direct access to their distribution sites. Ahead of a Rafah invasion, aid groups have begun trying to set up alternative guest houses and offices in other parts of southern Gaza.

Israel has told Hamas that it has a week to agree to a hostage deal, or else it will begin its military operation in Rafah, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday morning.

“Soldiers are on call waiting,” Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Israel’s special envoy for foreign affairs, told POLITICO, adding that the plans have been approved. She didn’t specify a timeline for the beginning of the invasion.

“If we’re going to go in, maybe that’s the only thing that will get Hamas to sign a temporary cease-fire and return some of our hostages,” she said. “We will go into Rafah — we have to at some point because the five last battalions of Hamas terrorists are there.

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