The Israeli special forces operation that military officials said freed two hostages early Monday in Rafah was accompanied by a wave of airstrikes that left dozens of Palestinians dead, according to health officials. in Gaza. The strikes highlight the challenges Israel faces if its ground forces advance on the congested southern city of Gaza.
Israeli leaders have framed an invasion of Rafah as a necessity to achieve their goal of eliminating Hamas. But planning for such an operation, in a city where more than 1 million Palestinians have sought refuge, is fraught with complexity and likely to take time, according to Israeli officials and analysts.
A major challenge for the Israeli forces was how to move the civilians who crowded the city out of harm’s way. Many Gazans have fled Rafah on instructions from the Israeli military to avoid fighting further north in Gaza, and a chorus of international leaders have expressed concerns that people there have nowhere to go.
The prospect of an attack on Rafah has created tensions in Egypt, which fears a destabilizing influx of Palestinian refugees across its border. Egypt is an important strategic partner of Israel in the region and has played a key role in negotiations aimed at securing the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
And it has increased divisions in the United States, with President Biden warning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call on Sunday that an offensive on the Rafah ground must include a plan to protect the civilians.
The Biden administration has also raised concerns about fighting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to two Israeli officials with knowledge of the discussions. An attack during Ramadan – which is expected to begin on March 10, although the timing depends on the sighting of the moon in Mecca – could be seen as particularly infuriating to Muslims in the region and beyond.
Israeli officials say the military continues to work on its plans for the Rafah invasion and that they have not yet been presented to Mr. Netanyahu. Meanwhile, some took a defiant tone about the expected attack on a town that officials call Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza.
“The Rafah operation will happen,” Avi Dichter, a minister from Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, told Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, on Sunday. “It starts and it ends, like any other place,” he said.
He also rejected the idea that Ramadan should impose any restrictions. “Ramadan is not a month without wars – it never was,” he said, noting that Egypt went to war against Israel in 1973 during the holy month.
Yaakov Amidror, a former general and national security adviser, said Israeli officials understand that “Rafah is a complicated issue.” But he described an invasion as necessary to destroy the Hamas battalions left in the city, to fulfill Israel’s war goals of dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities and its ability to govern Gaza.
“It’s not close,” he said of the operation, “but it has to be done.”
Doing so without evacuating civilians would be “almost impossible,” he added, meaning civilians in Rafah would have to be relocated. Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview with ABC News that aired Sunday that Israel was “working on a detailed plan” to do so, although he did not provide specifics.
Mr. Dichter suggested that the Gazans could be moved to an area west of Rafah along the coast. Mr. Amidror suggested other options, including some areas in central Gaza where the military has not yet moved, or the nearby town of Khan Younis, once Israel halts its campaign there.
Gabby Sobelman contributed to the report.