Truce or incursion into Rafah?

Alaa Al-Mashharawi, Sunday 18 Feb 2024

With negotiations on a truce in the Israeli war on Gaza stalling, the Israeli army is preparing an incursion into Rafah with potentially catastrophic results.

Truce or incursion into Rafah


The Israeli war on Gaza, now in its fifth month, has reached another crossroads: either Israel agrees to a truce and prisoner-exchange deal, or the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) press forward with plans to invade Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip.

Many fear that the latter will happen and that Israel will continue its genocidal rampage, adding more massacres to those it has so gratuitously perpetrated in the northern and central sectors of the Strip.

If Israel remains deaf to the mounting international appeals and proceeds with an incursion in Rafah, the death toll would be staggering. Rafah has become the most densely populated city in the world with more than 1.2 million displaced people from northern and central Gaza piled on top of the city’s original population of around 300,000 in a space of only 50 square km.

Turning down Hamas’ conditions for a ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed IOF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevy to call up reservists again to prepare for a ground incursion into Rafah at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip.

Reiterating his vow to destroy the Islamist-oriented resistance movement, he said that the war could only end with a “total victory” over Hamas in order to restore security to Israel. Nevertheless, he did not rule out continuing negotiations over an acceptable agreement to secure the release of about 130 Israeli and foreign hostages held in Gaza.

According to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Netanyahu said that the IOF had received orders to prepare for the start of an offensive in Rafah.

Describing the Israeli Prime Minister’s remarks as a form of political swaggering, Sami Abu Zuhri, head of the Hamas Political Bureau abroad, said that Netanyahu was set on perpetuating the conflict in the region and that Hamas was ready to deal with all the options.

Hamas’ ceasefire proposal calls for a four-and-a-half-month cessation of hostilities, the release of all the hostages, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza enclave and efforts to reach a negotiated agreement to end the war.

The proposal is a response to an earlier proposal devised by the directors of US and Israeli intelligence and presented to Hamas by Qatari and Egyptian mediators. There has been only one brief pause in the fighting since the war started last October. Lasting a week in late November, it enabled the release of some hundred hostages from Gaza and 300 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails.

Many international figures and organisations have warned of the potential consequences of an Israeli bombardment and invasion of Rafah. “Half of Gaza’s population is now crammed into Rafah with nowhere to go,” wrote UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on X on 8 February, adding that “reports that the Israeli military intends to focus next on Rafah are alarming. Such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences.”

Describing the current situation in Rafah as “very worrying,” Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruynes Slot tweeted that it is “hard to see how large-scale military operations in such a densely populated area would not lead to many civilian casualties and a bigger humanitarian catastrophe. This is unjustifiable.”

In every phase of the ground assault it launched on 27 October, the IOF has ordered residents to leave their homes and migrate to so-called “safe zones.” The waves of migration began in the north and moved first to central Gaza and then further south. However, even as the civilians fled southwards, they were not spared the shelling of their cars on the roads and then in the places in which they found shelter.

The Israeli ground operation in Gaza has reached Khan Yunis. But even though it has not yet proceeded into Rafah, the IOF has subjected the area to extensive shelling and bombardment, as has been the case since 7 October.

Gaza-based political analyst Nidal Khadra told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Israeli authorities fear that Egypt will bring humanitarian relief into Gaza without it being subjected to Israeli inspection should the IOF move forward with its plan to invade Rafah in defiance of international warnings.

Khadra, a close observer of Israeli affairs, said that “as the IOF nears the end of the offensive in Khan Yunis to dismantle the Hamas brigade there, it is preparing for a ground manoeuvre in Rafah to dismantle four battalions that the IOF believes are much weaker than the Hamas force in Khan Yunis. But the challenge is how to fight when there are 1.5 million civilians in Rafah.”

Israel would like to achieve two things in the immediate future in connection with Gaza, he said. The first is a hostage deal, and the second is to deal with the Philadelphi Corridor, a narrow strip of land along the border between Gaza and Egypt.

“Egypt is the key to both. Israel will certainly not be able to enter the Philadelphi Corridor without coordinating with Egypt and without international support, especially from Washington,” Khadra said.

UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA Spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna echoed the grave concerns of the UN secretary-general and other international officials. “A severe humanitarian catastrophe will result if the Israeli Occupation Forces invade the Rafah region in southern Gaza with over one and a half million displaced persons packed into that small area. With nowhere else for them to go further south, an attack on Rafah could only mean killing more civilians,” he said.

A Palestinian Fatah Movement leader believes that the aim of a potential military operation against Rafah is to empty Gaza of its inhabitants. The way Israel has been conducting the war shows that a genocide is in progress in Gaza, he said, and he appealed to international public opinion to intervene to stop the genocide in Rafah and prevent the impending catastrophe.

In a statement to the Weekly, Dimitri Diliani, spokesman for the Democratic Reform Movement (DRM) and a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, said that “several days ago, in the course of its flagrant and ongoing flouting of all humanitarian and international values and principles, the Israeli Occupation Authority threatened to invade Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip in what is a clear intention to shed more blood of our Palestinian people who have been displaced from the northern and central sectors in search of safety only to be bombarded again in the areas the Occupation Forces had designated as safe zones.”

“Even as more than 600,000 children and their families have fled to Rafah, the Israeli air strikes have continued without interruption across the entire Strip, including Rafah, which the occupation had said was a safe zone,” he said.

All this was enabled by the political, military, and financial support provided by the US Biden administration, the British government, the German government, and other Western governments for the occupying power and its army, which is relentless massacring thousands of civilians a month in Gaza.

These governments and their officials are “clearly complicit in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity which must lead to international prosecution,” Diliani said, adding that “the world must do more than just issue hollow condemnations of the atrocities that Israel has been perpetrating against our people in Gaza for four months. The Israeli war criminals and their aiders and abetters must be held accountable.”

“Serious work must begin to produce a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian cause. This necessitates the immediate halt to military and financial assistance to the Israeli government, harsh sanctions against the Israeli Occupying Authority, and support for the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”

The Israeli Ynet Website has confirmed that the US and other mediators are still working to narrow the gap between Israel and Hamas preparatory to another round of ceasefire negotiations in Cairo. Israel wants Hamas to relinquish some of the basic conditions that it added to the earlier Paris initiative and that are not related to prisoners, such as the need to stop settler incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Occupied Jerusalem.

Israel has delivered its response to Hamas’ proposal for a cessation of hostilities and prisoner exchange to Qatar, Egypt, and the US. It has indicated that it will not send a delegation to Cairo if Hamas’ conditions do not improve.

The Hamas plan, which Israel has rejected, called for three stages carried out over 135 days culminating with an exchange of all Israeli hostages for thousands of Palestinian political prisoners and an agreement to end the war on Gaza.

In its response to the mediators, Israel detailed the points it objected to, which were the withdrawal of the IOF that has split Gaza into two parts, the commitment to a lasting ceasefire after the 135-day suspension of hostilities ends, and the number of Palestinians Hamas wants released from Israeli prisons in the prisoner-exchange swap.

Israel reportedly told the mediators that although it would not withdraw IOF troops from the corridor south of Gaza City that divides the Strip into two zones in the first phase of the truce, it would be “willing to study” withdrawing IOF troops from urban centres in Gaza.

Israel has also made it clear to the mediators that it would not discuss, as part of negotiations on the hostage deal, the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, which was another demand in the Hamas plan.

The devastating war that Israel has unleashed on Gaza has now killed over 28,000 people and wounded more than 67,700 civilians, mostly women and children. The unfolding humanitarian disaster has led to Israel’s being brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the charge of genocide.

Since the ICJ issued its ruling ordering Israel to take measures to prevent further harm to the civilian population in Gaza, the humanitarian situation in the Strip has only worsened, to the degree that international relief agencies are warning that thousands are now on the brink of starvation due to the ongoing Israeli blockade.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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