Signs Suggest That Invasion of Rafah Is All but Inevitable

After weeks of delays, negotiations and distractions, Israel appeared to hint this week that its assault of Rafah — a city teeming with displaced persons above ground and riddled with Hamas tunnels below — was all but inevitable.

In what some analysts and residents of the city saw as a sign of preparations for an invasion, an Israeli military official on Tuesday gave some details that include relocating civilians to a safe zone a few miles away along the Mediterranean coast. Just a day earlier, Israeli warplanes bombed Rafah, increasing fears among some of the civilians sheltering there that a ground assault would soon follow.

Such indicators that Israel may be preparing an invasion, said Marwan Shaath, a 57-year-old resident of Rafah, “are terrifying and mean they may really be close to starting an operation.” Mr. Shaath, who lives in Gaza but is employed by Hamas’s Palestinian rivals in the occupied West Bank, added, “Our bags have been packed for months now for the time of the evacuation.”

Israel insists that a push into Rafah is necessary for achieving its goals of eliminating the militants sheltering in a network of tunnels beneath the city, capturing or killing Hamas leaders presumed to be there and ensuring the release of the remaining hostages captured during the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

But more than one million Gazans, many of them previously displaced from other parts of the territory by Israeli bombardment, are sheltering in the city in makeshift tents. In the case of an invasion, one Israeli military official said, civilians would probably be moved to Mawasi, a designated humanitarian zone. But the zone is already overflowing with displaced people, who warn that it lacks the infrastructure, including clean water and latrines, to handle such an enormous influx.

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