Israel said Wednesday it is “moving ahead” with its planned operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite international outcry over fears for the 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering there.

“Israel is moving ahead with our operation to target Hamas in Rafah,” government spokesman David Mencer told a press briefing.

“The four battalions which remain in Rafah cannot be shielded from Israel. They will be attacked.”

Mencer added that “two reserve brigades” had been mobilized “for defensive and tactical missions in Gaza” against the Palestinian Islamist movement.

The Head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, and the Israeli Army Chief of Staff, General Herzi Halevi, met in Cairo with Egypt’s intelligence chief and other key officials to discuss a possible operation in Rafah, senior Israeli officials told Axios.

Since Israel’s ground invasion began in Gaza on October 27, “at least 18 or 19 of Hamas’s 24 battalions have been destroyed,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel will press ahead with the threatened assault on Rafah, the last major population center in Gaza that Israeli ground troops have yet to enter.

The hawkish premier has said that the destruction of the remaining four Hamas battalions in Rafah is vital to his government’s war aim of destroying the Islamist group in Gaza.

A majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge in Rafah, many sheltering in makeshift encampments.

Countries including Israel’s top ally the United States have warned Israel against sending troops into Rafah, fearing huge civilian casualties.

“A full-scale military invasion of Rafah would have an enormously harmful effect” on civilians trapped there and “would ultimately hurt Israel’s security,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said earlier this month.

Red Cross official Fabrizio Carboni said humanitarian groups had no knowledge of reported plans to move Rafah’s residents away from the city ahead of the assault.

“There is no condition for a military operation without devastating humanitarian consequences,” he told AFP on Tuesday.

Hamas wants a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, which at this stage is unacceptable to Netanyahu, who has vowed to “eliminate” all Hamas battalions.

Mencer said that “at least 26,000 terrorists were killed, apprehended, or wounded on the battlefield” during the war in Gaza so far.

With AFP