Middle East

Israel’s Pending Rafah Campaign Faces Immense Opposition

Israel is facing tremendous international pressure to cancel a pending military campaign in Rafah, a Hamas stronghold and the last city in the Gaza Strip yet to conquered and occupied by the Israeli army.

Having stormed Gaza City and Khan Younis, and having bombed several Palestinian refugee camps in central Gaza, Israel appears to be gearing up for an invasion of Rafah, a city divided between Gaza and Egypt, and the seizure of the adjacent Philadelphi Corridor, the narrow buffer zone running along Gaza’s 14 kilometres-long border with Egypt.

Whether Israel decides to embark on such an operation will surely be one of the most consequential decisions of its war with Hamas.

Israel’s rationale for capturing Rafah is compelling.

Israel cannot acquire full control of Gaza unless it obliterates four Hamas battalions in and around Rafah and destroys its network of tunnels there. Until now, Israel claims it has destroyed or seriously damaged 18 out of 24 Hamas battalions and killed 10,000 of its foot soldiers and commanders.

Israeli special forces in Gaza on February 17

Some observers contend that Israel is using the threat of a Rafah invasion to exert pressure on Hamas to release more than 100 Israeli and foreign hostages in its captivity.

Last week, Israeli commandos liberated two Israeli hostages in Rafah in a raid that resulted in the deaths of nearly 70 Palestinian fighters and civilians. The hostages that were freed, Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, are dual citizens of Israel and Argentina.

Louis Har, left, and Fernando Simon Marman

It was only the second time since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October that Israel has rescued captives in Gaza.

Israel is determined to free yet more hostages through such raids, but as Defence Minister Yoav Gallant candidly admitted the other day, the majority of the hostages will be released only through indirect negotiations with Hamas. Last week, Israel rejected a Hamas counter-proposal for a ceasefire and an exchange of hostages and prisoners, saying that Hamas’ demands were “delusional.”

In the meantime, Israel appears to be planning an incursion into Rafah to eliminate the last Hamas battalions, remove Hamas from power, seize control of the Egyptian border area, and establish its undisputed authority in Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Rafah is in Israel’s crosshairs. “We are going to do it while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave,” he said. “We have worked out a detailed plan to do so. And that’s what we have done up to now. Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying, ‘Lose the war.'”

An operation of this kind would be extremely complicated in light of the fact that more than one million out of 2.3 million Palestinian civilians in Gaza have fled to Rafah to avoid fighting further north. Some of the displaced migrants have been forced to move several times since leaving their homes in northern, central and southern Gaza.

Israel’s friends and foes fear that an Israeli invasion of Rafah would lead to the death of still more civilians and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. Since the eruption of the war on October 7, when Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 Israelis in southern Israel, nearly 29,000 Palestinians have been killed and 65,000 have been injured, in what is the greatest Palestinian death toll in a single war since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The United States, Israel’s supreme ally, broadly supports its primary objectives of dismantling Hamas’ military capabilities and removing it as Gaza’s government. But with the U.S. presidential election creeping up and with insistent calls within the Democratic Party for a ceasefire, President Joe Biden fears that an Israeli offensive into Rafah would be a political liability for him and a bloody exercise in terms of Palestinian lives lost.

And so he has urged caution, having advised Israel “not to proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering” in Rafah. On February 16, Biden said, “I’m hoping that the Israelis will not make any massive land invasion … It’s my expectation that’s not going to happen. There has to be a ceasefire temporarily to get those hostages.”

A day earlier, White House spokesperson John Kirby said that “a major operation would be a disaster” unless Israel devises “a credible plan to protect” Palestinian civilians in Rafah.

Echoing their views, Canada, Australia and New Zealand released a joint statement recently stating that “a military operation into Rafah would be catastrophic.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has warned Israel that it risks a “humanitarian disaster of a new magnitude.” The foreign ministers of Britain and Germany, David Cameron and Annalena Baerbock, have expressed grave concerns about an Israeli invasion. Spain and Ireland have said that Israel might be in breach of its association agreement with the European Union should it invade Rafah. The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said that Palestinians in Rafah have nowhere to go.

Martin Griffiths, a senior United Nations official, has warned that Palestinians there are “staring death in the face,” and that an Israeli incursion could lead to a “slaughter.”

Benjamin Netanyahu converses with General Herzi Halevi, the chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces

Netanyahu has responded to these concerns with an assurance that Israel is serious about about protecting Palestinian civilians. “We’re not cavalier about this,” he said. According to reports, Israel intends to set up tent camps in Gaza’s Mawasi beach area, but the United Nations is skeptical about this plan and says it will not cooperate.

Arab countries from Egypt on down have called for an immediate ceasefire and have urged Israel not to launch an incursion into Rafah.

Egypt, in particular, is concerned that that it would push many Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula. Fearing an influx of Palestinian refugees, Egypt has fortified its border and has begun building a high wall near the border.

Egypt is building a high wall along its border with the Gaza Strip

Almost two weeks ago, officials in the Egyptian government threatened to suspend Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in the event of an Israeli invasion of Rafah. A few days ago, however, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that Egypt is committed to the treaty and will continue working for an agreement to achieve a truce and to facilitate the exchange of hostages and prisoners between Israel and Hamas.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Yesterday, in a sop to the Egyptian government, Israel announced that it would not try to force Palestinians into Egypt. As Gallant said, “The State of Israel has no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt. We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region as well as an important partner.”

Yoav Gallant

Meanwhile, the Israeli government is concerned by a report that the United States and several Arab partners are preparing a peace plan that could be announced should Israel and Hamas reach a ceasefire deal.

According to the Washington Post, the blueprint envisages a two-state solution, with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, the evacuation of many of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, and a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference today, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there is an “extraordinary opportunity” in the months ahead to defuse the war in Gaza, to ensure Israel’s security, and to integrate Israel into the Middle East.

Netanyahu, who has long been opposed to Palestinian statehood, has dismissed talk of such an agreement. One of his spokesmen, Avi Hyman, said, “Here is Israel, we’re still in the aftermath of the October 7 massacre. Now is the time for victory — total victory against Hamas. And we will continue on the path to victory. All discussions about the day after Hamas will be had the day after Hamas.”

And so Israel prepares to invade Rafah, a city on the cusp of a wrenching transformation that may well affect the outcome of the war in Gaza.