Israel Tells Civilians to Leave Rafah as It Weighs Attack

(Bloomberg) -- Israel’s military has told civilians to move out of parts of Rafah, a possible prelude to a long-expected attack on the Gazan city.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The Israel Defense Forces “will act with extreme force against terrorist organizations in your areas of residence,” a spokesman said on X on Monday morning. He urged residents of eastern Rafah to go north to an “expanded humanitarian area” near Khan Younis, another city in Gaza.

Large numbers of people started leaving Rafah in cars, on foot and on horse-drawn carriages.

The move comes after cease-fire talks between Hamas and Israel in Cairo over the weekend stalled, the main sticking point being the Iran-backed militant group’s insistence that any truce is permanent. Hamas also killed four Israeli soldiers with a rocket barrage on Sunday on the border crossing of Kerem Shalom, one of its worst missile attacks in weeks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for months said civilians in Rafah would be moved out before any attack. There are around 1.4 million in the city, most of whom fled there after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

Why Israel’s Plans to Invade Rafah Are So Worrying: QuickTake

It’s unclear how long it would take for the bulk of the civilians to leave. Israeli officials privately admit it could take weeks, while the US has expressed doubts that it can be done safely.

US President Joe Biden will speak to Netanyahu later on Monday about his plans for Rafah, according to officials from both countries. Washington has made its opposition to a major ground invasion clear to the Israeli government, according to a White House National Security Council spokesperson.

Most Arab and many European states have said Israel should not attack Rafah, fearing it would cause a mass of casualties.

The Israeli shekel weakened almost 1% to 3.74 per dollar as of 4:50 p.m. in Tel Aviv, heading for its biggest drop in almost three weeks.

Many civilians may choose to remain in Rafah if they’re unsure of the conditions where they’re being told to go. Much of the Gaza Strip, including Khan Younis, which is several miles from Rafah, has been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes since the war began on Oct. 7. Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union, may also prevent some of them from leaving.

The IDF said it was working on the expansion of field hospitals in the “humanitarian area” and would ensure there are tents, food, water and medication available.

Israel says Rafah is the last bastion of Hamas, with about 5,000 to 8,000 of its fighters and senior leaders lodged in the city, as well as many Israeli hostages.

Shortly after the IDF’s announcement, residents in Rafah got calls with pre-recorded messages asking them to evacuate to the designated area.

“Most of my neighbors and many people in the neighborhood received this call,” Kareem Jouda, who’s sheltering in eastern Rafah, said to Bloomberg. “We don’t know yet what to do.”

The military dropped leaflets too.

“The IDF is about to operate with force against the terror organizations in the area you currently reside,” one of them read in Arabic, according to the military. “Anyone in the area puts themselves and their family members in danger. For your safety, evacuate immediately.”

The United Nations relief agency that helps Palestinians, known as UNRWA, said an attack on Rafah would be “devastating” and “would mean more civilian suffering and deaths.”

An Ex-Israeli Leader Warns His Nation Against Attacking Rafah

The IDF said 100,000 people fall under its “evacuation order” and the operation is limited in scope. One Israeli official said it will probably last around two weeks.

Still, it’s unclear if the military will try moving out people in other parts of Rafah, which could take longer.

The army instructed people not to go toward the border fence with Israel or Egypt.

Rafah lies close to Egypt. Cairo has said it won’t take in significant numbers of people fleeing the war as that would amount to a forced eviction and betray the Palestinians’ cause for an independent state. Egyptian officials have also said they’re concerned Hamas fighters could cross over with civilians if the border was opened.

The war erupted when Hamas attacked southern Israel from Gaza, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostage. Israel’s bombardment and ground attack on the Palestinian territory have killed almost 35,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The only truce so far lasted a week and ended on Dec. 1. Around half the hostages were released. Of those remaining, Israel thinks at least 30 are dead.

Israel and Hamas blamed each other for the latest breakdown in the talks.

“Hamas is the one that frustrates every deal by not moving a millimeter from its extreme demands,” Netanyahu’s office said. These include a call for Israel to “retreat from Gaza and stop the war, which will once again allow Hamas to take control of the Strip militarily.”

Hamas said it may withdraw from the talks altogether following Israel’s decision to tell civilians to leave Rafah.

It said a military operation in Rafah “won’t be a picnic” for Israel because its fighters are “fully prepared.”

Regional Strife

The White House has said it’s a priority for Biden to get a cease-fire agreed and for the remaining hostages to be released. There were reports that William Burns, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, was heading to Israel on Monday in bid to save the truce negotiations, though it was unclear if he canceled those plans.

Israel Says Struck Hezbollah Site ‘Deep Inside Lebanon’

The war has roiled the wider Middle East, with other Iranian proxy groups attacking US bases in Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Houthis, based in Yemen, are assaulting ships around the Red Sea, while Hezbollah in Lebanon is trading fire with Israel on a daily basis, with fears their skirmishes could escalate into a full-on war.

Iran also directly attacked Israel for the first time last month with a mass of drones and missiles, almost all of which were intercepted. Israel reacted with a limited bombing of an Iranian air base.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Monday said that Palestinians need the support of the Muslim world. Countries that commit or are complicit in “crimes” in Gaza can’t be dealt with moderately, he said.

On Sunday, Israeli fighter jets struck a Hezbollah military site in the area of Safri in northeast Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by firing several rockets toward Israel.

--With assistance from Ethan Bronner, Alisa Odenheimer, Arsalan Shahla, Patrick Sykes and Jordan Fabian.

(Updates with details on Biden-Netanyahu call and comments from Hamas.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.