Israel Readies Rafah Assault While Reviving Cease-Fire Talks

(Bloomberg) -- Israel’s war cabinet approved an assault on the Gazan city of Rafah after civilians have first been moved out, an indication authorities are prepared to step up their military campaign against Hamas with cease-fire talks ongoing.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Friday the Israel Defense Forces are taking steps to relocate the estimated 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering in the city, an anticipated step ahead of a potential ground operation.

Israel will also send a delegation to Qatar to resume negotiations on a deal for the return of hostages, according to a statement, after a cease-fire proposal submitted earlier by Hamas was said to include unreasonable demands.

“Netanyahu approved the operation plans in Rafah. The IDF is preparing for the operational aspects and for the evacuation of the population,” the prime minister’s office said. “Concerning the hostages — Hamas’s demands are still unfounded.”

Israel’s indication of the long-awaited Rafah assault was delivered without shutting the door on a diplomatic way out of the crisis. The Israeli delegation will travel to Qatar — a mediator in US-backed cease-fire talks with Hamas — having not appeared at some earlier meetings planned for Cairo.

Israeli officials have repeatedly said they need to exert the maximum amount of pressure on Hamas to persuade the Iran-backed group to agree to a hostage deal.

Moving civilians out of Rafah could be a hugely complex task. Some Israeli officials have said in private it could take many days, if not longer, while there is no clear indication where they would go. Netanyahu has vowed that a military attack on the city won’t happen until after civilians have been allowed to leave.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US still hasn’t seen Israel’s plan to move civilians from Rafah. Asked about the cease-fire negotiations, he told a briefing in Vienna that a Hamas counter-proposal and Israel’s decision to send a delegation to the talks “reflects the sense both of possibility and of urgency to get an agreement.”

The Rafah plans are likely to increase tensions between Israel and the US, a major ally and military backer. President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to invade the city, while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the US’s highest-ranking Jewish elected official, on Thursday called for Israeli elections and the replacement of Netanyahu.

Read More: Schumer Calls for Netanyahu Exit as Democrats’ Gaza Worries Grow

Over 1.5 million people are sheltering in the southern city of Rafah near the Egyptian border, according to the UN, equivalent to three quarters of Gaza’s pre-war population. Many are living on the streets in makeshift tents.

The US and other allies had urged Israel to abandon the operation to allow for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid, but Israeli officials think Hamas’ leadership is there, as well as the hostages taken during the group’s Oct. 7 assault in which 1,200 people died. Hamas is designated a terrorist group by the US and the European Union.

Israel’s retaliatory air and ground attacks in Gaza have killed over 31,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

--With assistance from Iain Marlow.

(Updates with Blinken statement in eighth paragraph.)

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