More than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people have sought shelter in Rafah, crowding tents in refugee camps stalked by growing hunger, disease and more recently fear that there will be nowhere to escape if troops enter the city.
Washington said it could not support such an operation without proper planning, world leaders voiced growing alarm, and aid officials warned of a “bloodbath.”
In the face of that pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested Friday that civilians would be able to flee before the expected ground assault, which he said was necessary in the campaign against Hamas.
“It is clear that a massive operation in Rafah requires the evacuation of the civilian population from the combat zones,” Netanyahu said in a statement on social media. He ordered his military to prepare a plan but offered no further details.
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for further details on the plan from NBC News.
NBC News spoke to several residents who described mounting anxiety in the city, the last major population hub in Gaza that has not been taken over by Israeli troops.
“The last stop was supposed to be Rafah,” Isra Shehada, 33, told an NBC News crew on the bustling streets. “After Rafah, we only have God. Where can we go next ?”
But while Palestinians like Shehada saw Rafah as a last refuge, with at least basic infrastructure and aid present, Israel made clear this week that it views the city on the Egyptian border as a last remaining stronghold for Hamas.
“It is impossible to achieve the war goal of eliminating Hamas and leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Netanyahu’s office said Friday. It said he had ordered the military to draw up “a dual plan for both the evacuation of the population and the dismantling of the battalions.”
His comments follow rare public pushback from the U.S., Israel’s closest ally.