Middle East

Israel Has No Choice But To Invade Rafah

Israel has no alternative but to invade Rafah, Hamas’ last urban bastion in the Gaza Strip, despite objections from its chief ally, the United States.

Having successfully decimated or disabled nearly all of Hamas’ 24 battalions since the start of its ground offensive on October 27, the Israeli government is obligated to finish the job. Virtually every Israeli demands it after the horrifying events of October 7, during which bands of Hamas terrorists penetrated the fortified border and killed roughly 1,200 civilians and soldiers in southern Israel.

There is a problem, of course.

More than one million Palestinians have clustered in Rafah to flee the fighting in northern and central Gaza. The fear is that they will be adversely affected by a concerted Israeli incursion into that crowded city. The humanitarian crisis that already grips Gaza could very well morph into a far more serious issue after Israel moves into Rafah. Many more civilians could be killed, and malnutrition, hunger and famine could complicate matters.

Rafah — Hamas’ last urban stronghold

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on March 15 that he had approved a plan by the Israel Defence Forces to storm Rafah. “This is the only way to destroy the rest of Hamas’ murderous battalions, and this is the only way to apply the military pressure necessary to release all our abductees,” he said.

Mindful that civilian casualties must be kept to an absolute  minimum, Netanyahu said that civilians will be evacuated to “humanitarian islands” in the center of Gaza to keep them out of harm’s way. How Israel intends to carry out such a complex task remains to be seen.

U.S. officials have yet to receive Israel’s blueprint, but one can assume that Israel is working on it and will convey the details to the United States and its partners in due course.

In the meantime, the Biden administration is exerting mounting pressure on Israel to postpone, cancel or modify the Rafah operation. It fears that it would exact an intolerable toll on Rafah’s civilian population (apart from having adverse effects on President Joe Biden’s reelection prospects in the forthcoming presidential election).

On March 18, Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, elaborated on this theme. “A major ground operation there would be a mistake,” he told reporters at the White House on March 18. “It would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza and further isolate Israel internationally.” Sullivan said “the key goals Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be done by other means.”

Jake Sullivan and Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant last year

He disclosed that the U.S. has asked Israel to send a delegation to Washington “to lay out an alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements in Rafah and secure the Egypt-Gaza border without a major ground invasion.”

The current dispute between Israel and the U.S. is indicative of Biden’s shifting perspective on the war.

Since the October 7 massacre, he and his officials from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on down have repeatedly said that Israel has a “duty and a responsibility” to defeat Hamas, a proxy of Iran, so as to ensure that Hamas never governs Gaza again and cannot use it as a platform from which to attack Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on October 16, 2023

But with Palestinian casualties in Gaza having reached the 31,500 mark, a figure that includes Hamas operatives, the Biden administration has changed its tune and suggested that the humanitarian crisis trumps the imperative to smash Hamas.

Their comments are contradictory and disappointing.

They should bear in mind that Hamas cynically uses innocent civilians, or “martyrs,” as human shields to tarnish Israel’s image. And they should be aware that Israel will be hard-pressed to achieve victory in this existential war unless it destroys, root and branch, the last remnants of Hamas’ military power.

This is elementary. Israel should not be expected to halt its operation when it is relatively close to eliminating Hamas as a military threat.

Netanyahu, on March 17, addressed these important concerns in a speech designed mainly for international consumption. “We will act in Rafah,” he declared. “It will take a few weeks, and it will happen.”

External criticism of Israel’s strategy will “strengthen our determination to keep fighting until the end — until absolute victory,” he said. “No international pressure will stop us from realizing all the goals of the war: the elimination of Hamas, the release of all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat against Israel.”

Netanyahu made another valid point: “To our friends in the international community: Is your memory so short? So quickly did you forget October 7, the most horrible massacre committed against Jews since the Holocaust? So quickly are you ready to deny Israel the right to defend itself against the monsters of Hamas? Did you lose your moral conscience so quickly? Instead of pressuring Israel, which is fighting a just war against a cruel enemy, direct your pressure against Hamas and its patron — Iran. They are the ones who pose a danger to the region and the entire world.”

It is by no means certain whether Israel can achieve “complete victory,” to use Netanyahu’s phrase. Hamas is a determined and resilient enemy and it should not be underestimated.

Yet Israel must press on, knowing full well it must win this war. Thus the urgent need for Israel to eradicate Hamas’ four battalions in Rafah, while ensuring that the cost to civilians will be minimal.

Israeli soldiers in Gaza on March 17

If Israel fails to radically degrade Hamas’ military capabilities, the future will be grim. Hamas will try to regroup and rearm, rendering Israelis insecure and unsafe.

Iran, Israel’s deadliest foe, will be encouraged to destabilize the region and obliterate Israel. Hezbollah, Iran’s key ally, will be emboldened to continue its low-intensity war of aggression against Israel along the Lebanese border.

Biden must surely understand that an Israeli operation in Rafah is of the utmost strategic importance, not only to Israel but to the United States and the West.

Biden should not discourage Israel from acting in its own best security interests at this crucial juncture in the war. This is no time for a long-term ceasefire, though a temporary truce to release hostages would be acceptable.

Joe Biden.

Asking Israel to stop now would have been akin to asking the United States to cancel its D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France in 1944.

With the war approaching its sixth month, Israel has Hamas in its crosshairs. Israel should proceed with the crucial mission of obliterating its leadership and army in Rafah.