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Israel is determined to invade Rafah. The U.S. is still waiting for its plan.

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JERUSALEM — Israel is telling the world that the last battle of the Gaza war will take place in a sand-blown city on the Egyptian border.

The Americans are wary. The Palestinians are terrified.

Rafah, in southern Gaza, is now home to 1.4 million people — a last refuge for those displaced from other parts of the enclave. Families are living in tents, surviving on limited aid. Among them, and in tunnels beneath them, according to the Israel Defense Forces, are the last intact Hamas battalions and more than 100 Israeli hostages.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Washington that its war against Hamas cannot be won without taking Rafah. The Biden administration is deeply concerned about Israel’s planned assault — warning of a “disaster” scenario — but appears keen to avoid a public showdown.

The Washington Post spoke with three Israeli security officials and five American officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate diplomatic matters, to better understand the looming fight for Rafah, and the shape it might ultimately take.

In a video conference with senior Israel government officials Monday, the White House argued that there was a “better alternative” to a ground invasion of Rafah, but stressed that it is up to the Israelis to decide what to do, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

Details of the Israeli plan are not public; U.S. officials say they will provide general guidance to Israel but no detailed alternative. It is possible, analysts say, that both sides may want to blame the other for action or inaction.

Israeli military experts expect the IDF — having ordered civilians to Rafah in the early stages of the war — will now order them to leave, neighborhood by neighborhood. Then, troops and armored vehicles would enter the city to capture and kill Hamas fighters as special forces units search for hostages.

But where will the Palestinians go?

No new camps have been established, and the IDF is not allowing evacuees to return to the north. Even if they did return, many of their homes have been reduced to rubble.

Last week, Netanyahu told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation that Rafah was “the last bastion” for Hamas and that Israel was “weeks” away from victory, characterizing the coming battle as existential.

Not taking Rafah would be like the Allied forces in World War II “leaving a part of the Nazi army in place and saying, well, don’t go there … like leaving a quarter of the German army in place and don’t go into Berlin,” Netanyahu argued.

Last month, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, “Our position is that Hamas should not be allowed a safe haven in Rafah or anywhere else. But a major ground operation there would be a mistake.”

The Israeli military says it has “dismantled” 20 of the 24 Hamas battalions in Gaza — but the last four remain “fully operational” in Rafah.

IDF officials say the city sits atop a network of tunnels. Aboveground and belowground, they believe, are thousands of Palestinian fighters and Hamas’s top leaders, including Yehiya Sinwar, the architect of the Oct. 7 assault against southern Israel.

Israeli intelligence suggests that most of the remaining hostages are also in Rafah, the IDF says, increasing the complexity of the operation. Israeli defense officials describe the looming ground offensive as one of the most problematic, most dangerous and most necessary of the six-month war.

What most alarms Washington are the Palestinian civilians, many of whom have already been displaced multiple times and are wary of being uprooted again. U.S. officials say their push to protect civilians has already bought time and made any major military operation in Rafah highly unlikely before late April or May.

The Biden administration has urged Israel to consider more targeted “precision” or “surgical” strikes on Rafah, U.S. officials say. Yet those terms are relative. Two weeks of heavy fighting at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, described by the IDF as a “precise” operation, left the medical compound in ruins.

Rafah is an old crossroads, known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Before the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, imposed after Hamas seized power in the enclave, it was Gaza’s gateway to the world. Rafah became a hub of subterranean smuggling, for commercial goods and Hamas weapons brought into Gaza through tunnels. Egypt flooded many of the tunnels and reinforced the border zone.

The crammed streets of Rafah today are full of the displaced. Market stalls line the main roads, selling food pilfered from aid organizations at inflated prices, or bartered, while children haul yellow gallon water jugs back to their homes on makeshift carts.

While Israeli ground forces have not yet entered, the area is already a target for frequent aerial bombings.

“Our lives have turned into a waiting game,” said Rawiya Al-Bashiti, a 45-year-old mother of five. “We don’t know what’s next, whether Rafah will stay our home or if we’ll have to leave

“Every day brings news of peace, then it falls apart,” she continued. “We’re not sure if we’ll ever go back home.”

Despite Netanyahu’s public assurances that he had already approved a plan for Rafah, U.S. officials say no plan was offered by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallat in meetings in Washington last week with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William J. Burns, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon last week, Gallant said Israel aimed to disable Hamas as a military organization “with a centralized command and control,” but acknowledged that it would retain terrorist capabilities.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week that the Pentagon heard only “broad concepts” from Gallant about the military operation, and a “little bit more detail” on a potential plan for evacuating civilians.

U.N. and other international humanitarian organizations have emphasized that, no matter what Israel’s plans are for the relocation of civilians, there is simply “no safe place” in Gaza for them to go.

Officials in Washington have made little effort to hide their frustration with Israel, and have expressed growing concern, based on what they see as Netanyahu’s failure to heed their advice.

U.S. officials have pushed for precision strikes and raids in Rafah, rather than the large-scale bombing that occurred across the north.

They pointed with approval to what they described as the high level of intelligence and precise targeting that led to successful strikes that killed Hamas’s number three leader, Marwan Issa, last month.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking to reporters after Gallant’s visit, voiced fears about “a full-scale, and perhaps a premature military operation that could endanger” more than a million civilian lives in Rafah. Officials are also concerned that a major ground push into Rafah could further destabilize the region by forcing Palestinians into Egypt.

That fear was echoed by Michael Milshtein, former head of the Palestinian department in Israel’s military intelligence agency, who said it was vital that any future actions be closely coordinated with Washington.

“Very quickly clashes in Rafah could spill into Egypt, and accidents could happen, between the IDF and Egypt,” he said.

Yet it remained unclear what kind of leverage, if any, the administration is prepared to use to persuade Israel to change course.

Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, said, “I can’t imagine an end game without an effective military solution in Rafah.”

He said Rafah’s border with Egypt must be controlled, as the movement of goods, legal and illicit, have been “oxygen for Hamas.”

But he cautioned: “It won’t be a piece of cake.”

Balousha reported from Amman, Jordan, and DeYoung and Ryan from Washington. Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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