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A timeline of events leading up to Israel's Rafah offensive

An Israeli army battle tank moves along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 7.
Menahem Kahana
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AFP via Getty Images
An Israeli army battle tank moves along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 7.

The Gaza Strip's Rafah border crossing with Egypt has been a key lifeline for people in the Palestinian enclave. Throughout seven months of war, this has been the only way in and out of Gaza for aid workers and people trying to flee.

It is also where most food, medical supplies and fuel have entered Gaza, even as other crossings with Israel opened up. Most international aid groups serving Gaza are based in Rafah.

For months, Israel has vowed to launch a Rafah military operation regardless of whether there is a cease-fire with Hamas. Here is a timeline of events leading up to its offensive in Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's population had sought shelter.

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Oct. 7

Hamas-led militants storm across Israel's southern border with Gaza. Israel says the attack killed 1,200 people. Some 250 people are taken hostage. Israel launches a military campaign in Gaza in response.

Oct. 13

After heavy bombardment across Gaza and a full siege barring food, water and fuel from entering the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military begins ordering residents north of Wadi Gaza, including Gaza City, to evacuate south. The military drops leaflets warning that those who remain in Gaza City will be considered supporters of terrorism.

Palestinians on a car trailer flee with their belongings from Gaza City to southern Gaza after being told to leave their homes in the north by the Israeli military, Oct. 13, 2023.
Ahmad Salem / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Palestinians on a car trailer flee with their belongings from Gaza City to southern Gaza after being told to leave their homes in the north by the Israeli military, Oct. 13, 2023.

Oct. 14

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, starts evacuation of Gaza City and stops providing services to hundreds of thousands of displaced people sheltering in schools in the north. The U.N. says its shelters in Gaza are no longer safe. Tens of thousands of people begin heading south — most on foot, carrying their belongings and dragging their children for miles.

Oct. 18

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warns against a plan to forcibly displace Palestinians in the Gaza Strip into Egypt. He says Egypt will never accept the forced displacement of Gaza residents into the Sinai Peninsula because it could become permanent. He warns this could draw Egypt into conflict with Israel and threaten its peace treaty and says the Israeli siege of Gaza is aimed at displacement.

Oct. 21

The first aid trucks enter Gaza since the start of the war through the Rafah crossing after President Biden visits Israel and speaks with Egypt's president. Hundreds of trucks packed with aid are waiting on Egypt's side of the border.

The first trucks carrying humanitarian aid head to Deir Al-Balah after crossing from Egypt into the Gaza Strip in Rafah, on Oct. 21, 2023.
Ahmad Salem / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
The first trucks carrying humanitarian aid head to Deir Al-Balah after crossing from Egypt into the Gaza Strip in Rafah, on Oct. 21, 2023.

Nov. 1

For the first time since the beginning of the war, the Rafah crossing is opened for the exit from Gaza of wounded Palestinians and foreign citizens.

Nov. 24

A weeklong cease-fire begins between Israel and Hamas. Around 100 hostages from Israel are freed from Gaza and 240 Palestinian detainees are released from Israeli prisons. More aid is permitted into Gaza through the Rafah crossing.

Dec. 1

Israeli forces begin their invasion of and assault on the southern city of Khan Younis to go after what the military says are Hamas battalions and its command center there. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had sought shelter in Khan Younis are forced to flee again, with more people heading to Rafah.

Residents leave the Hamad Towers area, taking some of their belongings with them after the Israeli attacks on Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Dec. 2, 2023.
Loay Ayyoub / The Washington Post via Getty Images
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The Washington Post via Getty Images
Residents leave the Hamad Towers area, taking some of their belongings with them after the Israeli attacks on Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Dec. 2, 2023.

Dec. 2

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warns in a speechthat the war in Gaza can only be won by protecting civilians, saying "the center of gravity is the civilian population." He says otherwise Israel risks replacing "a tactical victory with a strategic defeat."

Dec. 5

U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths tells WBUR's "Here and Now"there is "no place of safety for people to shelter" in Gaza. "Now, we know today that diplomacy hasn't worked," he said, calling it a point of irreversible tragedy. If Rafah isn't safe, he asks, where do people go to find safety. "If they try to break out into Egypt, for example, Egyptians are very clear they will not want to accept a major new caseload of Palestinians ... and I dread to think [of] the scenes that will follow."

Dec. 6

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres invokes Article 99 for the first time in his tenure, prompting a cease-fire vote at the Security Council. He warns of "increased mass displacement into neighboring countries," a veiled reference to pressure on Palestinians in Rafah and the threat of forced displacement into Egypt. The U.S. is the lone veto of the resolution, with 13 nations voting in favor and the U.K. abstaining.

Dec. 30

At a Tel Aviv press conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is asked about the Philadelphi Corridor, a stretch of territory in Gaza that borders Egypt. He says: "The Philadelphi Corridor must be in our hands and must be closed. Any other arrangement will not guarantee the demilitarization that we want and must guarantee."

January

Palestinians with the means to do so start to pay thousands of dollars for Egyptian visas to enter Egypt from Gaza, with many describing this as extortion and bribery. The U.N. describes Gaza as "uninhabitable" and warns of the risk of famine.

Palestinians displaced by the Israel air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip take shelter near the border fence with Egypt in Rafah, Jan. 24, 2024.
Hatem Ali / AP
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AP
Palestinians displaced by the Israel air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip take shelter near the border fence with Egypt in Rafah, Jan. 24, 2024.

Feb. 9

Netanyahu instructs Israel's military to present plans to the Cabinet for evacuating the civilian population from Rafah and for a military operation that would eliminate Hamas battalions in the city.

Feb. 10

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states issue statements against an Israeli military operation in Rafah.

Feb. 11

President Biden tells Netanyahu in a call that "a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support" for people sheltering there, according to the White House.

Feb. 12

Israel's military frees two hostages from Rafah in a raid that kills at least 70 Palestinians, including scores of children, according to media reports quoting Gaza's health ministry.

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital morgue in Rafah, Feb. 12. The Israeli military said that it had rescued the two hostages from captivity in the Gaza Strip while conducting the airstrikes.
Fatima Shbair / AP
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AP
Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital morgue in Rafah, Feb. 12. The Israeli military said that it had rescued the two hostages from captivity in the Gaza Strip while conducting the airstrikes.

Feb. 16

Satellite images show Egypt constructing a walled enclosure near the Gaza Strip. Egyptian security officials tell NPR the walled enclosure is able to hold more than 100,000 Palestinians in the event the border is breached by an Israeli attack on Rafah that forces people to flee into Egypt. An official statement from Egypt says construction is ongoing in the area to create a rest stop for truck drivers delivering aid to Gaza.

Feb. 26

Israeli military chief of staff Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet director Ronen Bar meet with senior Egyptian officials, according to a report by prominent Israeli news outlet Walla, and assure them that an operation in Rafah will be coordinated with them. Egypt and Israel maintain close security coordination. Publicly, Egypt continues to warn against an assault on Rafah.

Feb. 29

The death toll in Gaza surpasses 30,000 people, according to the health ministry there. The ministry says most of those killed are women and children, and says its estimate of those killed by Israeli attacks is an undercount as thousands of people remain missing or trapped under the rubble. The death toll does not give a breakdown of militants killed.

Smoke billows following bombardment east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, May 6.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Smoke billows following bombardment east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, May 6.

March 9

The European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, warns that an operation in Rafah would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. He repeats calls not to attack Rafah in April and May.

March 13

The Israeli military says it has plans to move displaced Palestinians in Rafah toward "humanitarian islands in the center of the Gaza Strip."

March 21

Palestinians in Rafah document an uptick in the number of Israeli airstrikes on the city, with near daily attacks targeting homes where civilians are sheltering that week.

March 22

After U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with the Israeli war cabinet, Netanyahu states that Israel will carry out an operation in Rafah, preferably with the support of the U.S. — but adds: "If we have to, we'll do it alone."

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby tells reporters that a major ground attack in Rafah "is a mistake" and that the White House is in discussion with Israel's government on alternative ways to eliminate Hamas in Gaza.

Palestinian Muhammad al-Durra, who lost his wife and whose house was destroyed in an Israeli attack, breaks his fast with his children during Ramadan in the wrecked house, in Rafah, March 20.
Jehad Alshrafi / Anadolu via Getty Images
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Anadolu via Getty Images
Palestinian Muhammad al-Durra, who lost his wife and whose house was destroyed in an Israeli attack, breaks his fast with his children during Ramadan in the wrecked house, in Rafah, March 20.

April 8

Netanyahu announces there is a date for Israel's military operation in Rafah, but does not specify it.

April 9

After Israeli troops largely withdraw from Khan Younis, thousands of Gazans leave Rafah for the city. After finding Khan Younis largely in ruins and unsafe due to unexploded munitions and bombs, many soon return to Rafah.

April 17

Diaa Rashwan, chair of Egypt's State Information Service, tells the Al-Arabiya Arabic news channel: "Does Israel fully understand the meaning of Egypt's warnings against entering Rafah? Will it choose this option at the expense of peace that has lasted for 45 years, and put Egypt in a position where Israel does not really know how it will react?"

April 19

Foreign ministers from the Group of 7 countries, led by the U.S., say they oppose a full-scale Israeli military operation in Rafah, warning of catastrophic consequences for the civilian population there. The group calls for a "credible and actionable plan" that protects civilians.

April 24

The Israeli military mobilizes two brigades for duty in Gaza, a move that Israeli news organizations report frees up troops in central Gaza for a Rafah assault.

April 26

NPR reports on satellite images showing new tent encampments built in late April that could house thousands of people just north of Rafah.

Refugee tents near Rafah on April 23. Since April 1, hundreds of new tents have appeared at the very northern edge of Rafah.
/ Maxar
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Maxar
Refugee tents near Rafah on April 23. Since April 1, hundreds of new tents have appeared at the very northern edge of Rafah.

Apr. 30

In a meeting with the families of soldiers who were killed during the war, Netanyahu says Israel's military "will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal, in order to achieve total victory."

May 4

A Hamas delegation in Cairo presents mediators with questions and concerns over the Israeli parameters of a possible weeks-long cease-fire that could free Israeli hostages held in Gaza and Palestinian detainees held in Israel. Hamas says it wants guarantees of Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza and an eventual end to the war.

May 5

Israel's prime minister issues a statement saying Israel will not agree to Hamas' demands and will continue the fighting until all its goals are achieved. Hours later, Hamas fires rockets from Rafah toward the Israeli Kerem Shalom crossing point, killing four Israeli soldiers.

May 6

Israel orders people in southern parts of Rafah to evacuate, sending phone messages and dropping leaflets overhead. NPR sees families frantically packing their belongings and fleeing the area on foot. Hours later, Hamas agrees to a modified cease-fire deal, but Israel's war cabinet says it falls short of its demands.

A woman carries a child in a white shroud in front of a "Families Area" sign next to the bodies of others killed in an Israeli airstrike on a home in Rafah on May 6, 2024.
Anas Baba / NPR
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NPR
A woman carries a child in a white shroud in front of a "Families Area" sign next to the bodies of others killed in an Israeli airstrike on a home in Rafah on May 6, 2024.

May 7

More Israeli airstrikes hit Rafah, killing at least 25 people sheltering in various homes in the city, according to Gaza's health ministry. Among those killed are 13 members of one family. Hundreds of people have been killed in airstrikes in Rafah over the past six weeks.

A senior U.S. official said the U.S. had paused a shipment of more than 3,000 bombs to Israel last week because of concerns they could be used on Rafah. The paused shipment included 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs.

Israeli tanks roll across the border into Rafah and the military says it has operational control of Gaza's crossing into Egypt. The border crossing is sealed. Until now, the U.N. says, all fuel entering Gaza came through the Rafah crossing. More than three-quarters of the Gaza Strip is now under evacuation orders, the U.N. says.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.
Itay Stern
Alon Avital