Israel Entering Most Sensitive, Complex Stage of Its War With Hamas

Jerusalem is adamantly asserting that it cannot defeat Hamas, and eventually wind down the war, unless it engages in a major battle at the southern Gaza city of Rafah, a move opposed by America and Egypt, among others.

Planet Labs PBC via AP
A satellite image of the southern Gaza town of Rafah, January 14, 2024. Planet Labs PBC via AP

As America, Egypt, and others are urging Israel to forgo fighting at the southern Gaza city of Rafah, Jerusalem is adamantly asserting that it cannot defeat Hamas, and eventually wind down the war, unless it engages in a major battle there. 

On the nine-mile border between Gaza and Egypt, the city of Rafah has been the main point from which goods are smuggled to Hamas from across the region. Arms and other war-related materiel that is difficult to move through the heavily inspected Israeli crossing points find their way into Rafah in Gaza via tunnels from the Egyptian side of the city.

Now that the Israel Defense Force is in the process of finalizing the dismantling of Hamas’s strongholds at Gaza’s second-largest city, Khan Yunis, it is entering what is emerging as the most sensitive and complex stage of the war. Rafah is a huge challenge, but Israelis of all stripes say that operating there is a must. 

“We can’t win against Hamas without taking control of Rafah and the border with Egypt,” a retired IDF brigadier general, Amir Avivi, tells the Sun. “This is the only way to stop the flow of weapons, of know-how, of money, of the moving of terrorists from one place to another.”

The dilemma facing Israel is that early in the war, as the IDF started its operation at Gaza City, it urged civilians to move south from there — and later also from the central part of the Strip — and so as many as 1.4 million Gazans are now sheltered in temporary camps in the Rafah area. 

Egypt is erecting barbed-wire barriers and concrete walls to prevent the movement of civilians to its side of the border. Fearing a flood of refugees into its territory, Cairo is warning Israel against invading Rafah.

Washington, meanwhile, seems increasingly impatient with what President Biden on Thursday termed an “over the top” military operation in Gaza. American officials are especially skeptical of Israel’s ability to operate at Rafah without leading to a major humanitarian catastrophe. 

“Any major military operation in Rafah at this time, under these circumstances, with more than a million — probably more like a million and a half — Palestinians who are seeking refuge and have been seeking refuge in Rafah without due consideration for their safety would be a disaster, and we would not support it,” the National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, nevertheless, insists that the IDF must go into Rafah. “It is impossible to achieve the war objective of eliminating Hamas while leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” his office said in a statement. 

“It is clear that a massive operation in Rafah requires the evacuation of the civilian population from the combat zones,” the office said. “That is why the prime minister instructed the IDF and the security establishment to bring to the cabinet a dual plan for both the evacuation of the population and the dismantling of the battalions.”

Early in the war, Washington had warned against a humanitarian catastrophe if it captured Gaza’s largest medical facility, the Shifa hospital, a retired IDF major general, Gershon Hacohen, told Israel’s channel 12 television. “We found creative methods to capture Shifa despite the heavy presence of civilians there,” he said, “and I believe the army can now develop creative ideas for Rafah.”

Beyond America, Israel is facing strong opposition to a Rafah operation from Egypt. “The scenario of mass displacement is a possibility,” Cairo’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ahmed Abu Zeid, told Egypt’s al-Ghad News. “The Egyptian position on this has been very clear and straightforward: we are against this policy, and we will not allow it.”   

While Jerusalem prizes its relations with Cairo, many Israelis are skeptical that fear of a flood of refugees is the only reason it opposes an IDF takeover of the Gaza side of the border. 

“As both Egypt and the US are ratcheting up pressure on Israel not to take Rafah, it makes you wonder what embarrassing evidence Israeli combat engineers may find in the tunnels from Egypt to Gaza,” a former IDF spokesman, Jonathan Conricus, writes on X, adding, “only one way to find out, and my guess is that soon we will.”

It is no big secret that Egyptians, including military officials stationed at the Gaza border, have been profiteering from facilitating smuggling through tunnels into Gaza, General Avivi says.

“They enabled endless amounts of weapons to go into Gaza,” he says. “I’d expect the Egyptians to want to have Israelis on the other side of the border, and not the Muslim Brotherhood, which endangers them existentially. So, with all due respect, maybe we need to coordinate with them when we’re going into Rafah, but we are not asking them.”  

The New York Sun

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