Frustration Is Rising in Israel Over Delay in Offensive Against Hamas at Rafah

‘We’re not advancing strongly enough in this war,’ Gideon Sa’ar says.

AP/Ohad Zwigenberg, file
Israeli troops move near the Gaza Strip border in southern Israel, March 4, 2024. AP/Ohad Zwigenberg, file

For weeks now, Israeli troops have been poised on the outskirts of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza where the last surviving units of Hamas have established a final redoubt.

The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar, is believed to be hiding in the warren of tunnels dug beneath Rafah, surrounding himself with Israeli hostages as human shields. The death of Sinwar and the destruction of all surviving terrorist battalions in Rafah are essential to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vow to eradicate Hamas in Gaza.

Yet for several weeks, the IDF has refrained from expanding its offensive operations into Rafah, despite having largely completed the defeat of Hamas in neighboring Khan Yunis. This hesitation by Mr. Netanyahu has begun to grate on elements of Israel’s conservative movement, including some within his own Likud Party and within his own cabinet.

Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, a Likud member of the Knesset, voiced open criticism over the IDF’s inaction during an interview on a leading TV public affairs program. “I think that if we’re not close to a [hostage] deal, we need to ramp up our military operations against Rafah,” Mr. Danon declared.

Minister Without Portfolio Gideon Sa’ar was even more direct in his criticism of Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership. “I’ve been pushing for it over the past two months,” Mr. Sa’ar said in an interview with the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. “We’re not advancing strongly enough in this war.”

While assessing these comments by Messrs. Danon and Sa’ar, it is worth bearing in mind that both men have challenged Mr. Netanyahu’s political leadership in the past. And it’s a certainty that Messrs. Danon and Sa’ar will also be contenders to lead the conservative wing of Israeli politics once Mr. Netanyahu leaves public life.

Criticism of the IDF’s failure to attack Rafah has also surfaced within Israeli conservative media. A prominent right-of-center TV pundit, Yinon Magal, posted a graphic  on X calling for “Rafah Now!” in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Also on X, a prominent military affairs correspondent, Amir Bohbut, asked, “The IDF has to explain why it’s mucking around in Gaza and why not Rafah now?”

For his part, Mr. Netanyahu pushed back against his critics, promising in a speech  at a graduation ceremony for newly minted IDF combat officers that an Israeli offensive at Rafah was coming.

“Anyone arguing against an attack on Rafah is essentially arguing that Israel should lose this war,” Mr. Netanyahu said, “and that won’t happen on my watch. We say to the world that we are defeating the murderers of October7 and we’re preventing the next 9/11. Therefore, you must stand with Israel and the IDF.”

Correction: Yehya Sinwar is the name of the Hamas leader in Gaza and Amir Bohbot is the name of the prominent military affairs correspondent. An earlier version contained misspellings.

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