Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he has ordered his military to prepare a plan to evacuate civilians from the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah ahead of an expected ground invasion.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” he said in a statement. “On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.”
He said he has asked the Israel Defense Forces to submit a plan to his cabinet for evacuating the civilians and destroying the battalions.
The statement did not say by when he wanted the plan or to where he thought the more than 1.4 million Palestinians could evacuate. United Nations officials have repeatedly said nowhere in Gaza is safe.
Netanyahu said this week that Rafah and the city of Khan Younis are the "two last strongholds of Hamas." Hamas is a U.S.-designated terror group.
Rafah borders Egypt, and officials there have warned that any ground operation in the area or mass displacement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel.
It is also the main humanitarian entry point to Gaza. Intense fighting could further hamper relief efforts.
Israel launched new strikes overnight in Rafah, which witnesses and hospital officials said killed at least eight people, including women and children.
Netanyahu’s announcement comes hours after U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Israel’s conduct in military operations in Gaza has been “over the top.”
At a news conference late Thursday, Biden delivered some of his strongest criticism yet of the Israeli military campaign, which Hamas health officials say has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians. Israel launched its war after Hamas fighters infiltrated southern Israel on October 7 and killed 1,200 people and kidnapped 240 others.
The Pentagon said Friday that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, Thursday. During their discussions, the U.S. defense chief “reiterated the need to protect civilians as Israel conducts its operations against Hamas.”
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby also issued a stern warning to Israel about Rafah.
"Absent any full consideration of protecting civilians at that scale in Gaza, military operations right now would be a disaster for those people, and it's not something that we would support," he told reporters on Thursday.
His comments echoed those of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said there would be the risk of a "gigantic tragedy" if the IDF expands its offensive into the city.
“We would not support in any way forced displacement, which goes against international law,” a Guterres spokesperson told reporters Friday.
The head of the U.N. agency that assists Palestinians said there is a growing sense of anxiety and panic in the town because people do not know where to go.
“Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to an additional layer of endless tragedy that's unfolding," UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said.
Israel is unlikely to move quickly into Rafah as long as the IDF continues fighting in Khan Younis and around its tunnels, where it thinks that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, a native of Khan Younis, is hiding, said David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations.
"I think Netanyahu and Gallant want to signal that Israel is not afraid of going into Rafah," he told VOA. "But I think we are still talking about the signaling phase."
Washington is also concerned that an invasion of Rafah could have a spillover effect into Egypt.
"What could happen here with the relationship with Egypt? What will happen if the Palestinians try and rush into Egypt?” said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University.
“How are you going to deal with that? Those are the kinds of questions that are being asked” by the U.S. to the Israelis, he told VOA.
Despite its increasingly blunt public warnings to Israel, the U.S. remains a staunch supporter of Israel's military campaign to eliminate Hamas.
The White House has said it is optimistic that there is still a path toward a temporary cease-fire. Next week, Biden is set to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah as part of his push for a cease-fire and hostage release deal.
Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that a deal may be elusive because "neither Hamas nor the Israelis right now are really interested."
"There's no urgency for either of them in a comprehensive sort of cessation of hostilities," he said. "The only people that appear to be in a hurry is the Biden administration."
The U.N.’s top Middle East diplomat, Tor Wennesland, warned this week that a cease-fire is urgent before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins around March 10, otherwise tensions could further boil over in Jerusalem around holy sites.
VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer and White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.