The Israeli special forces operation that military officials said freed two hostages early Monday in Rafah was accompanied by a wave of airstrikes that left dozens of Palestinians dead, according to Gazan health officials. The strikes pointed to the challenges facing Israel should its ground forces invade the crowded southern Gaza city.
Israeli leaders have framed an invasion of Rafah as an imperative to achieve their goal of eliminating Hamas. But the planning for such an operation, in a city where more than 1 million Palestinians have sought shelter, is fraught with complexity and will likely take some time, according to Israeli officials and analysts.
A major challenge for Israeli forces will be how to move civilians who have crowded into the city out of harm’s way. Many Gazans fled to Rafah on the instructions of the Israeli military to avoid the fighting farther north in Gaza, and a chorus of international leaders have expressed concerns that the people there have nowhere to go.
The prospect of an assault on Rafah is creating tensions with Egypt, which fears a destabilizing influx of Palestinian refugees across its border. Egypt is an important strategic partner for Israel in the region and has played a key role in negotiations aimed at securing the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
And it has added to divisions with the United States, with President Biden warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a phone call on Sunday that a ground offensive in Rafah must include a plan to protect civilians.
The Biden administration has also raised concern over fighting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to two Israeli officials with knowledge of the discussions. An attack during Ramadan — which is expected to start March 10, though the timing depends on the sighting of the moon over Mecca — could be viewed as particularly provocative to Muslims in the region and beyond.
Israeli officials say the military is still working on its plans for invading Rafah and that they have not yet been presented to Mr. Netanyahu. In the meantime, some have struck a defiant tone about the anticipated assault on a city that officials have called the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza.
“The operation in Rafah will happen,” Avi Dichter, a minister from Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, told Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, on Sunday. “It will begin and it will end, just like in other places,” he said.
He also dismissed the idea that Ramadan should pose any constraints. “Ramadan is not a month without wars — it never was,” he said, noting that Egypt went to war against Israel in 1973 during the holy month.
Yaakov Amidror, a former general and national security adviser, said that Israeli officials understand that “Rafah is a complex issue.” But he described an invasion as necessary to destroy the Hamas battalions remaining in the city, in order to fulfill Israel’s war goals of dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities and its ability to govern Gaza.
“It is not imminent,” he said of the operation, “but it will have to be done.”
Doing so without evacuating civilians would be “almost impossible,” he added, which means civilians in Rafah would need to be moved. Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview with ABC News aired Sunday that Israel was “working out a detailed plan” to do so, although he did not provide details.
Mr. Dichter suggested that Gazans could be moved to an area west of Rafah along the seashore. Mr. Amidror suggested other options, including some areas of central Gaza where the military has not yet operated, or the nearby city of Khan Younis, once Israel winds down its campaign there.
Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.