Netanyahu directs Israeli military to draw up plan for ‘evacuation of the population’ from Rafah

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By Amir Tal and Mick Krever

(CNN) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has directed the country’s military to plan for the “evacuation of the population” from Rafah, his office said in a statement on Friday, ahead of an anticipated ground assault on the southern Gaza city.

More than 1.3 million people are believed to be in Rafah, the majority displaced from other parts of Gaza, according to the United Nations.

Netanyahu on Thursday said that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would “soon go into Rafah, Hamas’s last bastion.”

The top commander in charge of Israel’s military operation in southern Gaza told CNN on Sunday that there was no plan in place yet for how to minimize civilian deaths in Rafah. Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfuss, who oversees the IDF’s 98th Division, said that he would work on such a plan “if and when” he receives the order to maneuver his forces into the area, and that as of Sunday, the order had not been issued yet.

In the statement issued Friday, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said that it was not possible to both eliminate Hamas and leave “four Hamas battalions in Rafah.”

“On the other hand, it is clear that a massive operation in Rafah requires the evacuation of the civilian population from the combat zones.”

“That is why the Prime Minister directed the IDF and the defense establishment to bring to the Cabinet a dual plan for both the evacuation of the population and the disbanding of the battalions.”

Rafah is the last major population center in Gaza not occupied by the IDF.

Many Palestinians have trekked through the enclave and taken refuge in the city as the IDF’s campaign has moved south through Gaza.

But it is unclear where next they could go; the city borders Egypt to the south, but the border into the country has been closed for months.

A spokesperson for the United States State Department said Thursday that the US would not support an Israeli military operation in Rafah “without serious planning.”

“To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster,” Deputy State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel said at a press briefing Thursday.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said in a press release Thursday that Rafah could soon turn “into a zone of bloodshed and destruction that people won’t be able to escape.”

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