Israel facing military, diplomatic dilemma as attention turns to Rafah

The IDF will have to operate with precision and care in the remaining Hamas stronghold of Rafah, a densely populated urban area that sits along the border with Egypt

SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images

This picture taken in Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Yunis on February 14, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

As Israel turns its attention to Gaza’s southernmost governate, Rafah, and what could be its final big battle in the war against the Islamist terror group Hamas, it faces a complex military challenge in a densely packed urban arena and a diplomatic pressure point as some of its closest allies call for restraint and even an immediate ceasefire.

While four Hamas battalions are believed to be largely intact in Rafah and most of the Iranian-backed group’s senior leadership, including Oct. 7 mastermind Yahya Sinwar, is thought to be hiding there, the presence of more than 1.5 million civilians – many of whom fled fighting in the northern and central parts of the Strip over the last four months – sheltering in the area has drawn broad international concern, and mounting pressure on Israel to act with greater consideration for international law.

In a phone call this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Joe Biden called on Israel to “not proceed [into Rafah] without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there.” Other countries, including France and Israel’s strategic regional ally Egypt, have expressed concern over the IDF’s intentions to carry out a full-scale military operation in the area. The U.N. and other agencies providing humanitarian aid to the people in Gaza have warned of “devastating consequences” if the military operation goes ahead.

Despite this pressure, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant appear steadfast in their goals and in their messaging that the only path to victory in the Gaza Strip, which includes the freeing of more than 100 Israeli hostages, is to continue moving southward until Hamas is destroyed, its leaders are dead or have surrendered, and the IDF has full control over the coastal territory.

“The key to winning the war is for Israel to take over Rafah, destroy the remaining Hamas battalions and take control of the Egyptian border,” Brig. Gen. (retired) Amir Avivi, CEO of the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), told Jewish Insider this week.  

A former head of the army’s engineering corps who was responsible for the Gaza region, Avivi said there were ways for the army to move the civilian population out of danger as it battled the remaining Hamas fighters. He pointed to areas west and north of Rafah, where people could shelter, and said that with Khan Younis, which sits just to the north of Rafah, soon “cleared,” people could be directed there too.

“There are places to move the people,” said Avivi. “It is far less complicated than people are saying.”

Once the civilian population has been removed, he continued, then the IDF will be able to better operate in Rafah.

“The army has gained huge experience and intelligence in this war,” Avivi said, adding that out of Hamas’ 24 battalions, 18 were no longer fully functioning, two remained largely intact in refugee camps in central Gaza and four were in the Rafah area. In addition, he said, the IDF had largely destroyed Hamas’ weapons-making capabilities and overall, the terror group was “not in a very good position.”

Eyal Pinko, a retired Navy commander who served in the Israeli navy and intelligence agency for 30 years, told JI that military maneuvers in Rafah would be extremely difficult due to the large civilian presence and the fact that Hamas fighters had now embedded themselves inside that population.

“The challenges are different now and you can’t bombard Rafah from the air,” Pinko, now a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, noted, highlighting the contrast to earlier battles in the northern and central regions of Gaza, where the civilian population was easily evacuated, and Hamas terrorists operated from its underground infrastructure.

In Rafah, he continued, “Because it is such a condensed area, Israel will have to operate with less aerial force… and instead use its top commando forces working slowly and in stages to eliminate the threats above and below ground.”

“I think Israel has a huge dilemma,” observed Pinko. “There was a declaration at the beginning of the war that the first goal was to bring back the hostages and the second goal was to take out Hamas – the problem is that these two goals are contradictive to one another.”

Expressing pessimism that Hamas could be wiped out entirely and that attempts to negotiate a hostage release – talks took place earlier this week in Cairo between U.S., Egyptian, Qatari and Israeli mediators – were “irrelevant,” Pinko added that the only way to reduce more of Hamas’ capabilities and rescue any more of the remaining hostages was “through military force.”

Netanyahu and Gallant, as well as most of the military establishment in Israel, have remained determined on this point, shrugging off the complexities on the ground and ignoring the mounting criticism coming from the international community.

“Nothing in international law prevents Israel from entering cities,” said Eugene Kotorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum. “One is allowed to engage the enemy even in cities, especially when this is where the enemy has located itself.”

“It would of course have been much better for Hamas not to locate itself in an urban setting, or to hold hostages there – or anywhere – but given that they are doing so, Israel has an inherent right of self-defense,” he continued, pointing out that the U.S. army also fought against ISIS in crowded urban areas such as Falluja, Mosul, and Baghdad in Iraq.

However, Ronnie Shaked, a researcher on Palestinian affairs at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, told JI that Israel needed to slow down at this stage and “open its eyes” to the concerns expressed by its allies, especially the U.S. and Egypt. He also said that Israel needed to decide exactly what it wanted to achieve in Gaza as it gears up for what might be the final phase of this war.

“Israel needs victory, a symbol,” stated Shaked, adding that after 132 days of war Israel has seen only measure success in its fight against Hamas.

He warned that if Israel continued this way “it will score an own goal – a war without any successes, no releasing of hostages and no defeating of Hamas but instead creating more problems in Rafah and with our allies.”

A hasty military operation in Rafah, continued Shaked, could have a disastrous impact on Israel’s strategic ties with Egypt, which has already warned Israel to hold back, as well as on its relationship with the Biden administration, who has asked Israel to ensure there will be no humanitarian crisis in Rafah.

“There are things that we are not seeing because we are still operating with revenge and with emotion from Oct. 7,” he said. “Israel has to start thinking and looking at this war in another way.”

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