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Israeli military presents plan for evacuating Gaza’s population from ‘fighting areas’

By Rob Picheta, Nic Robertson and Alex Stambaugh, CNN

Tel Aviv, Israel (CNN) — The Israeli military has submitted a plan to the war cabinet for “evacuating the population” of Gaza from areas of fighting, amid warnings that an offensive on the southern city of Rafah will take place soon.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he had directed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to draw up a plan for the evacuation of civilians from Rafah, where more than a million people are crammed.

That “upcoming operational plan” was submitted for approval on Monday, Netanyahu’s office said, though its Monday statement did not mention Rafah by name. CNN has not seen a copy of the plan.

Fears are growing in Gaza and across the international community over the IDF’s planned offensive on Rafah, which lies next to the shuttered border with Egypt.

The city has become home to the majority of displaced Palestinians as the Israeli military advanced south through the enclave, but those civilians seemingly have no further place to escape.

The US has warned it would not support a campaign on the city without a “credible” plan to evacuate Palestinians.

Monday’s statement from Netanyahu’s office said the cabinet also approved a plan for providing humanitarian assistance to Gaza “in a manner that will prevent the looting that has occurred in the northern Strip and other areas.”

The Israeli leader pledged to press ahead with the effort in Rafah during an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

“We can’t leave the last Hamas stronghold without taking care of it,” Netanyahu said, adding that the last “command stronghold” of Hamas is in Rafah, with four command battalions concentrated there. CNN cannot independently verify those numbers.

He told the program that once Israel “begins the Rafah operation, the intense phase of fighting is weeks away from completion, not months, weeks away from completion.”

And he indicated he had asked the IDF to submit a “double plan”; one to “enable the evacuation of Palestinian civilians in Gaza,” and another “to destroy the remaining Hamas battalions.”

“If we have a deal, it’ll be delayed somewhat. But it’ll happen,” Netanyahu said, referring to a potential deal that would see a humanitarian pause in Gaza and the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas. “If we don’t have a deal, we’ll do it anyway. It has to be done,” he said.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN Sunday that negotiators had come to an “understanding” on the broad contours of a potential deal, and talks are continuing in Qatar on Monday.

These negotiations come even as indirect discussions with Hamas continue. Crucially, Hamas has not yet signed onto this possible framework and any possible final deal is still, at the earliest, days away as negotiators continue to hammer out the actual details.

“The representatives of Israel, the United States, Egypt and Qatar met in Paris and came to an understanding among the four of them about what the basic contours of a hostage deal for temporary ceasefire would look like. I’m not going to go into the specifics of that because it is still under negotiation in terms of hammering out the details of it,” Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash.

“There will have to be indirect discussions by Qatar and Egypt with Hamas because ultimately they will have to agree to release the hostages. That work is underway,” Sullivan added. “And we hope that in the coming days, we can drive to a point where there is actually a firm and final agreement on this issue. But we will have to wait and see.”

UN warns of ‘final nail in the coffin’

An all-out Israeli offensive in Rafah would be “the final nail in the coffin” of the UN’s aid operations in the besieged Palestinian territory, the UN Secretary-General said on Monday, in comments that could escalate tensions between the organization and Israel.

Speaking to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Antonio Guterres said that Rafah was “the core” of the humanitarian aid operation in Gaza, and called the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) “the backbone of that effort.”

An assault on the city “would not only be terrifying for more than a million Palestinian civilians sheltering there; it would put the final nail in the coffin of our aid programmes,” he said.

Guterres also reiterated his call for a humanitarian ceasefire and the “immediate and unconditional” release of all hostages.

The Secretary-General said both Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians and “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people could not be justified, adding that under international humanitarian law, “violations by one party do not absolve the other from compliance.”

Last week, the CEO of the humanitarian group CARE USA, which has aid workers inside the enclave, told CNN “there are so many lives that hang in the balance” in Rafah as the Israeli offensive looms.

“They (Palestinians) are desperately hoping and praying that there will be no invasion in Rafah, which I think we all recognize would be devastating,” Michelle Nunn said. “One of the distinctions in this crisis is that you can’t get out.”

Many of those who have been displaced from their homes “feel like they’re at the end of the line and have nowhere else to go,” she added. “The kind of horror that people are facing into is really unbearable.”

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CNN’s Sana Noor Haq, Camila DeChalus, Sam Fossum, Richard Roth and Lucas Lilieholm contributed reporting

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