Troop movement suggests Israel could expand operations in Rafah soon, U.S. officials say

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The U.S. has seen recent troop movement that indicates Israel could expand operations in Rafah soon, but it has not made a formal assessment about whether a full-scale invasion is imminent, according to two U.S. officials.

The Biden administration has repeatedly warned against a full-scale Israeli military operation in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where more than 1 million Palestinians sought refuge, citing humanitarian concerns.

The Israel Defense Forces have amassed and prepared enough personnel on the edge of Rafah to suggest they could be ready to go into other areas of the densely populated city, the officials said, but it is unclear whether Israel has made a final decision about when and how to proceed.

One of the officials said that the troop movement started days ago and that the U.S. does not know whether a larger incursion into Rafah would be days or weeks away.

The U.S. continues to urge Israel not to go “smashing into” Rafah in a major offensive and to ensure appropriate humanitarian precautions, the second official said.

On Tuesday morning Israeli forces pushed deeper into residential areas of eastern Rafah, with NBC News’ crew on the ground seeing vehicles advance toward the Al-Jneina neighborhood.

Around 450,000 people have fled Rafah since Israel ordered a partial evacuation a week ago and sent in tanks, the United Nations said Tuesday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that a full-scale ground assault on Rafah would not achieve Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated vow to eliminate Hamas.

“Even if it goes in and takes heavy action in Rafah, there will still be thousands of armed Hamas left,” Blinken said, noting that “we’ve seen, in areas that Israel has cleared in the north, even in Khan Younis, Hamas coming back.”

U.N. human rights chief Volker Türk said Sunday that a full-scale Israeli military operation in Rafah “must not take place.”

“The latest evacuation orders affect close to a million people in Rafah. So where should they go now?” he said. “There is no safe place in Gaza. I reiterate — a full-scale offensive on Rafah cannot take place.”

President Joe Biden said last week the U.S. won’t transfer offensive weapons to Israel if it invades Rafah. The move was met with concern and anger by some Israeli officials.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated Monday that the administration does not view Israel as genocide. He also voiced outrage at videos showing Israeli settlers attacking a humanitarian aid convoy on its way to the Erez Crossing in northern Gaza.

The U.S. and others have been pushing Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, where humanitarian groups have warned food and fuel are running short, but some in Israel oppose the deliveries during the war.

“It is a total outrage that there are people who are attacking and looting these conveys,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House. “It is completely and utterly unacceptable behavior.”

More than 35,000 people in Gaza have been killed, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled enclave, since the war began with the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas. The attacks killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, the Israel prime minister’s office has said, and Hamas also took around 250 others hostage.

More than 130 people remain held captive in Gaza, with at least a quarter of the hostages believed to be dead.

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