Israel sends reserve troops back into Gaza ahead of imminent Rafah offensive

Media reports say army set to invade southern city 'very soon'

A camp housing internally displaced Palestinians, who fled Rafah and northern Gaza, in the west of Deir Al Balah. EPA
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Israel has sent two reserve brigades back into Gaza, the army has announced, fuelling speculation of an imminent offensive on the southern city of Rafah as reported by local media.

The second and 679th reserve brigades have been mobilised "to continue the defence and attack mission in the Gaza Strip under the command of the 99th division", the Israeli army announced in a statement on Wednesday.

Israeli media says the army is readying for an invasion and expects civilian evacuations will take four to six weeks, with plans to send Palestinians to tents, according to reports from Israel's Kan public broadcaster cited by several news outlets.

The soldiers, who have been stationed on Israel's northern border with Lebanon, have been preparing for a return to Gaza, it said, sharing images and video footage of soldiers in mock raids.

All reserve units had been pulled out of the strip earlier this year, while most remaining troops left southern Gaza this month.

The plans to invade Rafah seem to be moving ahead despite numerous international appeals to spare the city, where more than 1.5 million displaced Palestinians are now living.

The Israel Hayom newspaper on Wednesday said the military assault will begin "very soon".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a date has been chosen for the invasion and has hinted repeatedly at moving ahead with the assault, pledging this week to "increase pressure" on Hamas.

Israel will “land additional and painful blows” to Hamas over Passover, which ends on the night of April 30, he said in a video message before the holiday began.

The government has procured thousands of tents ahead of the invasion, Israeli sources told Reuters on Wednesday, echoing recent reports of government bids for tent suppliers to set up displacement camps.

The sources also said the government will meet in two weeks to approve civilian evacuations, the first stage of the Rafah invasion, which is estimated to last about a month.

There was no comment from the Prime Minister's office or the Defence Ministry.

Unverified video circulating online appeared to show rows of square white tents being put up in Khan Younis, a city which continues to be targeted in Israeli air strikes and artillery shelling, and which is only 7km from Rafah.

Maxar satellite images seen by Reuters also showed a number of tented camps on land in the city that was vacant on April 7.

Israel says four of Hamas's remaining six battalions are in Rafah, a city on the Egyptian border.

"Hamas was hit hard in the northern sector, it was also hit hard in the centre of the Strip – and soon it will be hit hard in Rafah, too," Brig Gen Itzik Cohen told Kan TV on Tuesday.

"Violent" air strikes were reported across the city overnight and into Wednesday morning.

Several people were also killed and wounded in strikes near a school in Nuseirat refugee camp and in several neighbourhoods across Gaza city.

Meanwhile, heavy artillery shelling was reported in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia in the north.

The Gaza Health Ministry said on Wednesday that 34,262 Palestinians have been killed and 77,229 injured in Gaza since Israel's military offensive began on October 7. The toll includes 79 people killed and 86 injured in the previous 24 hours to noon.

Bodies continue to be discovered in a mass grave at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, weeks after the Israeli army ended a lengthy raid on the medical complex.

The UN has said it was "horrified" at the reports of the mass graves at Nasser and Al Shifa hospitals, while the US said it was troubled by the discovery and has asked Israel for more information.

Corpses were found buried deep in the ground, covered in waste, some with their hands tied, according to the UN's human rights office.

While Palestinians have buried victims of previous raids in mass graves, usually while the hospital was under siege, civil defence teams said there were signs of "field executions" at the site.

Israel said it had "examined" bodies at the site in efforts to identify hostages held by Hamas.

“The examination was carried out respectfully while maintaining the dignity of the deceased,” an army representative said on Tuesday, adding that examined bodies “were returned to their place”.

Updated: April 24, 2024, 11:34 AM