Apr 24, 2024 - World

Top Israeli and Egyptian officials secretly meet to discuss possible Rafah invasion

Girls peer through the hole left by a destroyed window from a building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 24, 2024 following reported Israeli air strikes overnight amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas.

Girls peer through the hole left by a destroyed window from a building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Apr. 24, 2024 following reported Israeli air strikes overnight. Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

Top Israeli intelligence and military officials met Wednesday in Cairo with Egypt's intelligence chief and other key officials to discuss a possible Israel Defense Forces operation in Rafah, three senior Israeli officials told Axios.

Why it matters: Egyptian officials are concerned an Israeli operation in the southern Gaza city would lead to tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians entering their territory, potentially involving a breach of the border that would endanger Egypt's security.

  • Senior Egyptian officials have said in public and in closed talks with Israel that such a scenario would lead to a rupture in relations with Israel and could even jeopardize the peace agreement between the countries.
  • Israeli officials said close military and diplomatic coordination with Egypt is one of the basic conditions for Israel's military action in Rafah, especially in light of Israel's intention to take control of the Philadelphi corridor, which is adjacent to the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
  • Spokespersons for the IDF, Egypt's General Intelligence Service and Egyptian officials declined to comment.

Flashback: This is the second visit to Egypt for the head of the Shin Bet Ronen Bar and the IDF chief of staff General Harzi Halevi since October 7 to discuss a possible operation in Rafah.

  • Bar and Halevi met with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and Egyptian Chief of Staff Osama Askar.
  • They also discussed efforts to reach a deal for the release of hostages held in Gaza and a temporary ceasefire. Egypt is one of the key mediators in negotiations between Israel and Hamas.
  • The previous visit in mid-February, which was first reported by Axios, was to convey a message that Israel would take steps to ensure a Rafah operation would not result in an influx of thousands of Palestinian refugees into Egyptian territory.

State of play: Israel has for weeks said it would invade Rafah but faces pushback from the U.S. and other countries about the more than 1 million displaced Palestinian estimated to be sheltering in the city and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

  • Senior Israeli officials said that significant progress has been made in preparing for the evacuation of the civilian population from Rafah. According to the officials, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have set up large tent shelters between Rafah and Khan Yunis as well as in the Muassi area northwest of Rafah along the coast.
  • "Everyone is waiting for Netanyahu's directive to start evacuating the civilian population from Rafah. It's parked at his desk. He needs to resolve the matter with both the Americans and the Egyptians," a senior Israeli official said.

Behind the scenes: A senior U.S. official noted the plans that the IDF presented to the U.S. Department of Defense in recent weeks included a slow and gradual operation in Rafah — neighborhood by neighborhood — and not an all-out invasion of the entire city.

  • The U.S. official said that according to the Israeli plan presented to the Biden administration, it would not be necessary to evacuate all citizens from the city immediately, but that each neighborhood would be evacuated separately.
  • Senior U.S. and Israeli officials said Israel presented its humanitarian plan regarding the Rafah operation last Thursday during a virtual meeting between Israel and the U.S.
  • During the meeting, Israel emphasized to the U.S. that the decision to launch an operation in Rafah would be "conditions-based and not time-based" and connected to the humanitarian situation on the ground," U.S. officials said.

Israeli officials claimed 250,000 of the more than one million Palestinians who found refuge in Rafah have already left the city in the last two weeks since the IDF left the Khan Yunis area.

  • The senior U.S. officials said that in recent days they have monitored a return of some of those people to Rafah, after they discovered that the infrastructure and houses in Khan Yunis were completely destroyed.

What they're saying: Senior U.S. officials stated it is evident that Israel has changed its approach, is listening to the criticism and concern of the Biden administration and is changing its plans regarding Rafah accordingly.

  • Despite this, the Biden administration is still concerned about an Israeli operation in Rafah and presented during the last virtual meeting at least ten questions for which it would like to receive clarifications from Israel, U.S. officials said.
  • "There is progress, but there is also a lot more work to do. In the IDF PowerPoint presentations we saw, everything looked good. The question is how it will look in reality," one U.S. official said.
Go deeper