As Gaza cease-fire talks resume, the coming fight for Rafah looms large

Fighting in Gaza began to ebb earlier this month as Israel withdrew most of its ground troops from the enclave. The opening of new border crossings allowed for the entry of more desperately needed aid. And Israeli officials resumed discussions Thursday over a possible cease-fire deal after months of dead-end diplomacy.

But any flicker of respite appears fleeting for Gazans, as Israel prepares for a bloody showdown with militants in Rafah — the sandy strip of land that is home to more than a million displaced civilians and, according to Israel, the last remaining Hamas battalions.

Egypt, desperate to avert fighting along its long-fraught border with Gaza, presented Israeli officials with a new proposal Wednesday to head off a Rafah invasion, according to a former Egyptian official familiar with the negotiations. On Thursday, Israel’s war cabinet to discuss a possible hostage deal, an Israeli official said. Like other current and former officials in this story, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive and ongoing talks.

An Egyptian delegation was in Israel on Friday to continue talks on the proposal, according to reports in Israeli media and the former Egyptian official.

The flurry of diplomatic movement comes amid mounting domestic pressure in Israel to bring home the more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza and growing international alarm over Israel’s looming offensive in Rafah, which has Palestinians and aid groups in a nerve-racking limbo.

Israel had intended to present its Rafah plans to the Biden administration in the “coming days,” the Israeli official said, though it was unclear if the new diplomatic push might impact the timing. U.S. officials have insisted on a “credible” plan to evacuate displaced Palestinians, yet most families have already been uprooted multiples times during 200 days of war and many have no homes in which to return. Cities in the north have been largely flattened and the ruins hide unexploded ordnance; less populated areas in central and coastal Gaza are devoid of shelter and services.

Washington has said repeatedly it cannot support a major military operation in Rafah. Israeli officials have described the coming campaign there as inevitable and essential. “If necessary,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month, “we will do it alone.”

Airstrikes on the southern city have picked up in recent weeks, medics say, adding to the sense of foreboding. New tent encampments in the south and troop deployments are signals of a shifting landscape, yet there is scarce evidence that Israel is prepared to move large numbers of civilians out of Rafah or flood the south with soldiers.

“Everyone is just waiting in fear,” said Marwan al-Hams, director of Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah, as the first victims from overnight Israeli strikes began to arrive Thursday night. He said the pace of attacks had escalated over the last two weeks after a relative lull during Ramadan.

“The displaced people do not know where to escape to,” he said.

Israel says it must invade Rafah to dismantle Hamas as an organized military force, though the group will likely retain lethal guerrilla capabilities — illustrated by the recent reemergence of fighters in the north. Military officials believe Hamas’s top leaders, including Yehiya Sinwar, the architect of the Oct. 7 attacks, and many of Israel’s 130 remaining hostages, are holed up in tunnels beneath the city.

Hamas gave a reminder of its leverage on Wednesday, releasing a video with the first proof of life of American Israeli hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was 23 when he was kidnapped from the Nova music festival. It was screened by Israeli’s war cabinet during their meeting on Thursday, local media reported, amid near daily protests by hostage families and their supporters.

U.S. officials have said they do not think an offensive is imminent, and conditions on the ground appear to support that assessment. The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday said it was ready to deploy two reserve brigades for missions in the Gaza Strip, but that would still leave the military well short of the force levels needed to sustain a major operation.

“We’d need troops,” said Jonathan Conricus, a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and IDF spokesman earlier in the war.

But he noted Israel’s recent efforts, under American pressure, to address Gaza’s hunger crisis — allowing more aid trucks to cross and working with the United Nations to reopen bakeries in the north. An IDF engineering unit, which has been practicing on an Israeli beach with U.S. military counterparts, will secure a U.S.-built floating pier in central Gaza, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Thursday. The pier is expected to be up and running in early May, the official said, with an estimated 90 trucks per day supplying food and medical supplies.

Improving the situation in the north, where experts have warned a famine may already be underway, is key to winning U.S. support for a Rafah operation, Conricus said. “To get people out of fighting before fighting begins, and to have a credible action plan to deal with providing humanitarian aid,” he said. “That’s the focal American demand.”

The volume of aid reaching Gaza is “significantly greater” than in previous months, David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues, told reporters this week, describing it as “progress” but “not enough.” Any offensive in Rafah would likely shut down the city’s border crossing with Egypt, which has been the main route for aid deliveries during the war.

The lack of clarity on Israel’s military operation, and when it will be put in motion, has left aid agencies guessing.

“Contingency planning is a strong word, because there’s no plan,” said Bob Kitchen, vice president for emergencies at the International Rescue Committee, in an interview earlier this month after a trip to Gaza. “If there was an obvious candidate for where people would be moved to, then sure we could plan.”

One of many unanswered questions, Kitchen said, is how humanitarian staff would be able to enter or exit Gaza if Rafah is off limits. In the meantime, the organization is establishing a base in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. “Assuming the plan goes forward, a lot of people are going to have to move from the south,” he said.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, also plans to relocate its base from Rafah to Deir al-Balah if the offensive goes ahead, a UNRWA employee told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The agency has not been told by Israeli authorities to evacuate their base in Rafah, the UNRWA employee said, but many staffers have already found accommodations and office space in Deir al-Balah. Such movements are sensitive because of public fears around an operation, and a UNRWA spokesperson denied the agency had contingency plans to move its base to central Gaza.

Conricus said Israel is looking at “various options” for the evacuation of civilians, including areas of Nuseirat and other central camps, the coastal area of Mawasi and the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, adding that planning is still underway. Israel’s Defense Ministry has purchased 40,000 tents.

Who would implement and oversee a new humanitarian zone is also uncertain, according to Western diplomats, with Israel seeking to disband UNRWA and some aid groups still wary of being seen to facilitate an Israeli military operation.

Yet in Israel and Washington, and in Rafah’s tent cities, all agree it is not a question of if, but when the battle will begin.

“We’ll see at a certain point the IDF sending pamphlets and telling people to move to Khan Younis and the coastal area,” said Amir Avivi, a reservist brigadier general and former deputy commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division. “The decision was made already, a timetable was set, whether they move it a few days or not it’s not really the point.”

“With or without American support, Israel is going to Rafah,” he added.

Anxiety over the operation is not limited to Washington. Egypt is extremely concerned about Israel’s Rafah plans, said one foreign diplomat in Cairo who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. There are hopes the assault will be “less intense” than Israeli operations elsewhere, the diplomat said, with more staggered raids.

Egypt’s new diplomatic proposal, given to Israeli officials in Cairo this week by the country’s head of military intelligence, calls for the release of all Israeli hostages in two phases — 10 months apart — in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a cease-fire that could last for up to two years, according to the former Egyptian official familiar with the talks.

But other people familiar with the state of play said any such proposal was unlikely to succeed and that the main issue on the table for Israel was whether to accept the smaller number of hostages that Hamas has offered — perhaps as few as 20 — rather than the 40 proposed for an initial ceasefire.

“I don’t see any way there can be an agreement right now,” said Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in 2011. Threats to invade Rafah “don’t mean anything unless you plan to go ahead with them,” he said.

While Israeli officials say that humanitarian plans are being closely coordinated with Egypt, Cairo has been adamant that is not the case — wary of being seen as complicit in another displacement of Palestinians. In a statement this week, Diaa Rashwan, head of the State Information Service, said Egypt “completely denies” any discussion with Israel regarding the Rafah invasion.

Hassan Afaneh, director of the relief program at the Al-Khair Foundation, has been involved in setting up a fast-growing camp in southern Gaza in coordination with Egypt’s Red Crescent Society, with a total of 2,300 tents in place so far. The final goal is 10,000, he said.

Satellite imagery reviewed by The Post shows the growth of the encampment near Mawasi, on the outskirts of Khan Younis.

No tents are visible in imagery collected on April 7. Eleven days later, on April 18, imagery collected by Planet Labs and reviewed by The Post showed a first group of tents, each roughly 10 by 15 feet, occupied more than 300 square feet. By April 23, the tent’s footprint had roughly tripled in length.

A second camp, also visible by satellite imagery, has been set up closer to Rafah. But Afaneh stressed their efforts had nothing to do with preparations for an Israeli offensive.

“These camps aim to alleviate the suffering of the residents of the Gaza Strip, specifically in the south, in light of the presence of large numbers of displaced people,” he said.

When Iran fired a barrage of more than 300 missiles and explosive drones at Israel earlier this month, global attention seemed to shift away from Gaza. But within days, it was back on the agenda at the United Nations. At the end of an often heated discussion, the United States stood alone in voting against a resolution to recognize a Palestinian state.

In a news conference Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that the administration remains “intensely focused” on Gaza, “even as we’ve been dealing with the conflict in the Middle East and … the unprecedented attack by Iran on Israel.”

“We cannot support a major military operation in Rafah,” Blinken said. “Getting people out of harm’s way is a monumental task for which we have yet to see a plan.”

In Rafah, Abeer Maher, a 36-year-old mother of three, said she’d been wracked by stress over reports of an imminent invasion, and tormented by the choice facing so many families: whether to stay or go.

“Where do we evacuate to now?” she said over a voice note sent from a roadside tent, where she and her children have sheltered for the last three months. They had previously stayed under the stairs of a school in Khan Younis before it was attacked. Rafah was supposed to be the safe-zone, she said.

The family has been displaced three times since they woke to the sound of explosions in their Gaza City neighborhood on Oct. 7. Some nights they have slept with their shoes on.

“We are now dreaming they’ll reach a hostage exchange deal at any price to stop this waterfall of blood,” she said.

Yasmeen Abutaleb, Hazem Balousha, Louisa Loveluck and Hajar Harb contributed to this report.

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