Middle East

Israel’s Plan To Invade Rafah Causes A Crisis in U.S.-Israeli Relations

Israeli forces have entered the eastern quarter of Rafah and seized a critical border crossing through which international aid flows into the Gaza Strip. Although its armored incursion falls short of its long-anticipated invasion of Rafah, Hamas’ last urban stronghold in Gaza, the movement of Israeli troops and tanks into that city has already triggered a crisis in Israel’s relationship with the United States, much to Hamas’ glee.

Israel, describing it as a limited and targeted operation, has ordered 110,000 Palestinian civilians sheltering there to move to safe zones to the north.

Israeli tanks thundered into Rafah on May 7, two days after a Hamas rocket barrage killed four Israeli soldiers near the Kerem Shalom border crossing. The Israeli Air Force has conducted more than 100 airstrikes and killed 30 Hamas fighters since advancing into Rafah, but in fact, Israel began bombing Rafah a few weeks ago.

The city of Rafah

At this juncture, it is unclear whether Israel’s maneuver represents only the first phase of a fullscale invasion. For the past few months, Israel has been threatening to seize Rafah and the adjacent Philadelphi corridor along the Egyptian border through which Hamas has smuggled weapons and munitions under a maze of tunnels originating in the Sinai Peninsula.

A shaft leading to a Hamas tunnel in central Gaza

What is clear is that the four remaining Hamas battalions are entrenched in Rafah’s elaborate network of tunnels. Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7, Israel has destroyed or degraded 18 of them in northern, central and southern Gaza.

Israel’s objectives in the war are three-fold: to eradicate Hamas’ military capabilities, to remove it as Gaza’s governing authority, and to free the last 100 or so Israeli and foreign hostages believed to be held in and around Rafah.

Rafah in January

It’s debatable what Israel will be able to achieve should it invade Rafah in its entirety. According to the Institute for the Study of War, Hamas will likely survive such a major Israeli operation: “Hamas infiltrated and then rebuilt itself in areas that the Israel Defence Forces withdrew from in December 2023 and April 2024. Hamas units in these areas have conducted dozens of attacks targeting Israeli forces attempting to reclear areas that the IDF had previously cleared. Hamas and other militias have also mortared Israeli forces holding static positions in the central Gaza Strip’s Netzarim Corridor. Hamas units outside of Rafah have also reportedly coordinated among themselves to conduct operations against the IDF by coordinating meetings between brigade and battalion commanders. Hamas will survive a Rafah operation because it continues to operate from and control other territory in the Gaza Strip outside of Rafah.”

In the meantime, Hamas has warned Israel that ongoing hostage negotiations will crumble unless it halts its current offensive in Rafah.

On April 30, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu categorically rejected a demand by Hamas that a hostage deal must include a commitment by Israel to end its military campaign and withdraw from Gaza. As he put it, “We are not prepared to accept a situation in which the Hamas brigades come out of their bunkers, take control of Gaza again, rebuild their military infrastructure, and return to threatening the citizens of Israel.”

“Surrendering to the demands of Hamas would be a terrible defeat for Israel,” he added. “It would be a huge victory for Hamas, for Iran …”

Netanyahu said that Israel would enter Rafah “with or without” a hostage deal so as to achieve “total victory.”

On May 7, Hamas’ political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, announced that it would accept a ceasefire proposal formulated by Egyptian and Qatari mediators, with some changes.

The next day, following the entry of Israeli tanks into Rafah, Netanyahu claimed that Haniyeh’s statement was nothing more than a public relations ploy designed to forestall Israel’s Rafah offensive. He dismissed it as an insincere and inadequate offer. Nonetheless, under pressure from the United States, he authorized a mid-level Israeli delegation to continue indirect talks with Hamas in Cairo.

Israel has offered Hamas a temporary truce to allow for the exchange of hostages and Palestinian prisoners. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it an “extraordinarily generous” offer.

Antony Blinken meets Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on May 1

Yet Israel has made it abundantly clear that the war will not end until  Hamas is dismantled as a military and political force in Gaza.

The United States, Israel’s chief ally, broadly supports Israel’s war aims, but opposes an invasion of Rafah unless Israel presents a credible plan to evacuate its civilian population.

During his visit to Israel earlier this month, his seventh since October, Blinken said, “We cannot, will not, support a major military operation in Rafah absent an effective plan to make sure that civilians are not harmed — and no, we’ve not seen such a plan. There are other ways, and in our judgment better ways, of dealing with the real, ongoing challenge of Hamas that does not require a major military operation.”

The Biden administration’s policy has created a problem for Israel, which is determined to wipe out Hamas. It also poses a threat to the viability of Netanyahu right-wing government.

Israel cannot defeat Hamas unless it smashes its last active battalions in Rafah.  Several of Netanyahu’s most radical ministers, notably Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who bring 14 Knesset seats to the table, have threatened to break up his coalition government unless he orders an invasion. If his government collapses, Netanyahu will have to call new elections, which he may well lose.

Benny Gantz, a member of the special war cabinet and the former defence minister, has adopted a more cautious approval to Rafah, saying that the release of the hostages takes precedence over a campaign to defeat Hamas.

Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv call for the release of the hostages in Gaza

Despite these fundamental disagreements, Israel has prepared two divisions for ground combat in all of Rafah. On April 30, the Israel Defence Forces disclosed that the 162nd and 98th divisions had “completed combat readiness operations” in advance of an invasion.

Israeli troops in central Gaza on May 1

Two days earlier, the Israeli chief of staff, General Herzi Halevi, said he had approved operational plans “for the continuation of the war” in Rafah.

Herzi Halevi

Fearing that Israel might well use heavy-duty bombs for a major push into Rafah, the Biden administration announced on May 8 that it has delayed a large shipment munitions to Israel consisting of 1,800 bombs weighing 2,000 pounds each and another 1,700 bombs weighing 500 pounds each.

This is the first time since the eruption of the war that the United States has suspended the transfer of weapons to Israel. Not since the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s has the United States withheld the delivery of arms to Israel.

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv last October

Biden, in his strongest language to deter a fullscale Israeli invasion of Rafah, said he had warned Netanyahu that he would would halt the delivery of some offensive weapons should Israel invade Rafah. “If they go into Rafah, I’m not going to be supplying the weapons,” he said. “We’re not walking away from Israel’s security. We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.”

Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin conveyed this point clearly prior to Biden’s announcement.

Lloyd Austin meets Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last December

The Biden administration’s new policy is somewhat confusing. Only the day before, he reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security, “even when we disagree.”

The chief spokesman of the Israeli army, Daniel Hagari, played down the suspension, saying that Israel’s strategic cooperation with the United States has reached new levels and that disagreements have been handled “behind closed doors.” But Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, called it “disappointing.”

There is no doubt whatsoever that Israel and the United States are now on a collision course over Rafah.