The Coming Showdown Over Rafah

8 minute read
Dan Raviv, a former CBS News foreign correspondent, is co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars."

The war between Israel and Hamas is approaching a key moment of decision. Will the powerful Israel Defense Forces (IDF) smash their way into calamitously crowded Rafah? After destroying many thousands of homes elsewhere in the strip, Rafah would be the IDF’s final target. That’s where Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding in their vast network of tunnels, probably with more than 130 hostages kidnapped from Israel on October 7 as part of a terrorist attack that killed around 1,200 people.

Or perhaps Hamas will end this war by freeing all the hostages? That could be part of a deal in which the Islamic radical group’s leaders would be allowed to leave for exile, probably in some Arab country—which is what the PLO’s Yasser Arafat chose to do, departing Lebanon after the IDF invaded that country in 1982.

President Joe Biden has pointedly told Israel that Rafah—where the usual population of 400,000 Palestinians has swelled by an additional million who fled there to escape Israeli bombings and fighting—should not be the next battleground, unless Israel can carry out a detailed plan to evacuate the civilians.

The result, so far, is a game of chicken. Who will blink first?

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—but also retired General Benny Gantz, his political rival who joined an emergency war cabinet after October 7—have declared that the IDF has to go into Rafah: to finish the job of destroying Hamas’s governing power, to kill or capture the group’s leaders, and to rescue as many hostages as possible. Gantz even suggested a deadline of March 10.

Yet so far, the refugees in their tents have not been leaving: not going back to damaged or destroyed homes, and certainly not being allowed by neighboring Egypt to cross the border into the Sinai peninsula. Those displaced Palestinians understandably tell aid workers and reporters that there is no place safe in the Gaza strip. Many say they are entrusting their fate to God.

What pressure might compel Hamas to give up? The leaders who planned and executed the October 7 attack that humiliated Israel—exposing that its expensive border fence was easily penetrated, and then IDF troops didn’t show up for hours—must have known that Israel would react with a big and brutal invasion of Gaza. But Hamas probably did not expect that its very existence would be imperiled, in a war that would last for months.

A child standing inside a damaged building, stares at the Al-Faruq mosque, levelled by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on a foggy day on February 25, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. MOHAMMED ABED-AFP/ Getty Images

In past mini-wars along that frontier, there would be a few Israelis killed or kidnapped, then bombing and shelling by Israel would kill hundreds of Palestinians, and then some kind of deal mediated by the U.S. and Egypt would end the fighting—until next time.

The murders, rapes, wholesale destruction, and kidnappings suffered by Israel were so severe this time that Netanyahu decided to go for broke. He vowed that no one was going to stop the IDF from destroying Hamas.

The Palestinians say around 30,000 of their people have been killed in Gaza, and while the number comes from Hamas and is thus unreliable, the toll of death and destruction has obviously been extremely high. That is why a majority of countries—as is obvious from votes in the United Nations —condemn Israel’s war tactics. The IDF blames Hamas for hiding among civilians, and insists it is doing a lot to minimize non-combatant casualties.

Though not as horribly in the number of deaths, the war has also been costly for Israel. As of Wednesday, 576 IDF soldiers died in combat in Gaza. Around 200,000 Israelis have left their homes near the Gaza strip or near the northern border with Lebanon, both considered to be war zones since October. Most were accustomed to living in affluent comfort and are putting heavy political pressure on Netanyahu to finish this war, so they can return home.

The families of the Israeli hostages are also putting pressure on Netanyahu and his war cabinet. They want the prime minister to make a deal—any deal—to get their loved ones out of Hamas captivity, which they say has been brutal, and a new report by Israeli activists contains evidence of sexual assaults and mutilation of bodies by the terrorists who attacked on October 7. The families are having nightmares that the torture is continuing.

Israeli officials are expressing gratitude to the U.S. for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution this week that would have demanded an immediate ceasefire in Gaza—which Israel says would be equivalent to letting Hamas win the war. And Israel is grateful that the U.S. openly disagrees with critics—notably South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel in the International Court of Justice—that claim the Israelis are committing “genocide” against the Palestinians.

Netanyahu must be wondering, however, how much longer President Biden will be willing to be so pro-Israel—defying global public opinion, and that of many in his Democratic Party who believe the death and destruction in Gaza have been excessive. No one forgets that Israel is dependent on the U.S. for weapons, ammunition, and diplomatic support.

A rift is growing between the U.S. government and Israel, specifically Netanyahu, after literally decades of a prickly relationship between him and Biden. The American president once recalled inscribing a photo of himself and the Israeli leader, using his nickname: “Bibi, I love you but I don't agree with a damn thing you had to say.”

They have had several long phone conversations this month, and Biden put forward a historically large ask: that Netanyahu agree to declare that the best solution for the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict is for the two peoples to have two states, side by side, living in peace.

On this issue, the Israeli leader used to say, “Yes, but…”, pointing to his attempts over the years to negotiate with Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. But the answer has become a firmer “no.” Netanyahu claims that the “two-state solution”—the key to the Oslo Accords, signed by Israeli and Palestinians leaders in 1993 on the White House lawn—would endanger Israel, and the prime minister says the massacres and kidnappings of October 7 prove his point.

Netanyahu and many other Israelis contend that moving toward Palestinian statehood now would be a bizarre reward for the aggression by Hamas. But the fact is that Hamas does not seek a two-state solution. The group’s Islamic radical leaders vow to eliminate the State of Israel, repeatedly claiming that Jews are colonialist strangers in the Holy Land—despite thousands of years of Jewish presence dating back to Abraham, the birth of monotheism, the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the preachings of a Jew from Nazareth named Jesus.

Biden and the administration’s Middle East experts—who until October 7 were working to foster a more moderate, pro-America region to include friendly relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia— see the Gaza war as an opportunity to get back onto the peace train. They believe it is time to push aside the rejectionists led by Hamas and nurture a new Palestinian leadership that would be willing to live in peace alongside Israel.

Skeptics point to a reputable opinion poll, and many indications in Arabic-speaking media, that a large majority of Palestinians are proud of the October 7 attack. They are happy that Israel’s military and intelligence were humiliated. Yet Biden—and other optimists who believe that a positive future can emerge from a tragic, hate-filled present—hope that Saudi money, cooperation from other Arab nations in reconstructing Gaza, and abject humiliation for Hamas can combine to create a more cooperative environment.

Netanyahu refuses to consider, in detail, any new structure for Israel and the territories it captured in 1967. Oddly echoing the “river to the sea” phrase chanted by anti-Israel protesters around the world—where they call for a “free Palestine” to replace the Jewish state—the prime minister declares that complete control over security from the Jordan to the Mediterranean must be in Israel’s hands. His country’s occupation of Gaza ended in 2005, when the IDF and thousands of Jewish settlers departed; but the results included round after round of warfare. He claims that if the Israeli occupation of most of the West Bank were to end, then that territory would also become a hotbed of hostility.

In response, Biden recently said that a state of Palestine is necessary but could be demilitarized, as Netanyahu set out as a minimum demand. One thing the White House is not willing to declare publicly is Biden’s opinion—confirmed by many Americans with whom he has spoken—that Netanyahu himself is one of the roadblocks making Israeli-Palestinian peace so difficult to achieve.

The man who is Israel’s longest serving prime minister is proud of the disagreements that he has had with Biden. Standing firm is popular among right-wing voters, who generally don’t trust Arabs and want to keep the West Bank forever.

At a news conference in December, Netanyahu boasted that he had “put the brakes” on a flawed Oslo peace process and blocked establishment of a Palestinian state. Obviously referring to the U.S., the Israeli leader declared: “Among friends, it’s important not to foster illusions.”

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