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Israel tells civilians to leave Rafah as it warns of imminent ‘operation’

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The Israeli military has told tens of thousands of Palestinians to leave the southern Gazan city of Rafah as Israel’s defence minister warned of an imminent military “operation” as talks to free Israeli hostages appeared to have stalled.

At least 100,000 civilians in eastern Rafah, along the border with Israel, should move to what Israel calls a humanitarian zone on the Mediterranean, an Israel Defence Force spokesperson told reporters, in “a limited scope” operation as part of a “gradual plan”.

Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defence minister, told troops in Gaza on Sunday that there were “worrying signs” that negotiations over a ceasefire and a hostage swap with militant group Hamas were flailing.

“The implication of this is an operation in Rafah and all of the Gaza Strip in the very near future,” he said. “We are a moment before action.”

Israel had previously suspended its plans to invade Rafah to allow for indirect negotiations with Hamas over the release of hostages to proceed, Gallant told the troops. The failure of those talks would put those plans back into play, he said.

The evacuation order came amid conflicting reports on the progress of negotiations that could see as many as 33 Israeli hostages freed by Hamas during a six-week pause in hostilities that would have delayed any Israeli operation in Rafah.

Hamas had proposed that the six-week pause be part of a broader deal in which the remaining hostages, many of them soldiers abducted during the October 7 attacks, would be freed in exchange for a more lasting ceasefire.

Israel would have simultaneously released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including those convicted of violence against Israeli civilians.

But a senior Israeli official said over the weekend that the IDF would “enter Rafah and destroy the remaining Hamas battalions there — whether or not there will be a temporary pause for the release of our hostages”.

A Hamas spokesperson told the Al-Aqsa TV channel that the militant group continued to insist on a “permanent ceasefire” before it would agree to free any hostages, a stumbling block that has derailed prior negotiations.

CIA director Bill Burns is expected to visit Israel after talks in recent days in Cairo and Doha with mediators on the details of the proposal, which is being brokered by the US, Egypt and Qatar.

The proposal, at present being studied by Hamas, leaves open the possibility of continued negotiations during an initial limited ceasefire. This could see more of the estimated 132 hostages — including kidnapped soldiers — freed in exchange for a “sustainable calm”.

The evacuation order came after four Israeli soldiers were killed on Sunday in a mortar attack on the Israeli side of the area being evacuated, near the Kerem Shalom border crossing that is crucial for humanitarian aid deliveries into Gaza.

The IDF spokesperson declined to say if the order was prompted by the attack. The attack “was a reminder of Hamas’s presence”, he said.

Israel’s western allies have repeatedly warned it not to invade Rafah without a detailed plan to protect the more than 1mn Palestinian civilians who have sought shelter in the southern edge of the besieged enclave.

Humanitarian conditions in Rafah remain dire, with food and water shortages that have been exacerbated by the influx of displaced Palestinians from the devastated north of the enclave. UNRWA, the UN relief agency for Palestinians, said it would continue working in Rafah despite the evacuation order, which Israel started communicating with flyers dropped from planes, text messages and phone calls.

The Mawasi humanitarian zone where Israel has told civilians to move is about the size of Heathrow airport, with tent cities set up by international aid organisations and limited field hospitals. The IDF said it would expand the “humanitarian” area.

Egypt has repeatedly said that it opposes any Israeli military operation in Rafah, especially along the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, which runs alongside its border with the Gaza Strip. A map of the evacuation order appears to also include the Rafah border crossing, a major conduit for humanitarian aid.

Gallant spoke late on Sunday with US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who repeated Washington’s concerns that any Israeli military operation in Rafah must include a “credible” plan for protecting civilians.

The IDF spokesperson declined to comment on whether Israel’s current plans had been submitted to or approved by the US.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition allies have threatened to collapse his government if he accepts an end to the war in Gaza without dismantling the remaining Hamas battalions that Israel says are now in Rafah.

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