Rafah showdown

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 28 Apr 2024

The countdown to an Israeli ground offensive on Rafah has started.



“We are bracing ourselves for the worst and we know it is coming very soon.”

Speaking earlier this week, the staff member of a humanitarian relief organisation working on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border with Gaza said agencies were stepping up their level of readiness “to manage a huge humanitarian crisis” as “the countdown” for the Israeli ground offensive on Rafah began.

“The word is that it is coming before the end of this month. We are talking about days.”

Agency workers say that everyone has given up hope on the US administration’s ability to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to forego a ground attack on the southern Gaza city where most of the Strip’s population has sought refuge. In the words of one UN source: “The US managed to get Netanyahu to contain his response to the Iranian attack of 14 April and the cautious Israeli strike five days later appeared to confirm diplomatic assessments that in return the US will accommodate Netanyahu’s Rafah offensive.”

For two weeks, Netanyahu has been insisting that the date for a ground offensive on Rafah has been set. Humanitarian agency and diplomatic sources have long expected the operation to begin sometime in the second half of April or early May. They warn that it will dramatically increase the 35,000 Palestinian civilians who have already been killed, and close to 100,000 injured, since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza.

This week, Egypt and a host of other countries, including the US and France, warned once again of the humanitarian toll any ground offensive on Rafah will exact. According to an Egyptian diplomatic source, appeals for Netanyahu to reconsider his plans, and demands that an efficient humanitarian evacuation scheme be put in place, are ongoing and continue to be ignored by Netanyahu.

Ahmed Morsy, senior associate researcher at the Stockholm Peace Research Institute’s Middle East Programme, argues that the state of looming anticipation may continue for much longer than early next month “because it is in Netanyahu’s interests to keep the situation loose and avoid being pressed to provide answers to questions for which he has none.”

The questions, says Morsy, include the future of Israeli security along the border with Gaza “in an assumed post-Hamas phase” and “the fate of the hostages which might not be resolved by an Israeli ground offensive”. Delaying the offensive could also allow Netanyahu to continue to extract political gains from his Western allies and continue to undermine “any possibility of a Palestinian state being established within politically acceptable parameters”.

In the event of an attack, the diplomatic and humanitarian sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly say a different set of questions — for Israel and its closest regional allies and its enemies — remains unanswered.

How will the “humanitarian tragedy” that is expected to unfold with the ground offensive be managed? Egyptian officials say Cairo has stepped up security measures to avert any “unlawful entry into Egyptian territories” in parallel with increased humanitarian readiness along the borders and in nearby hospitals.

And what plans exist for the day after the ground offensive on Rafah? How will Gaza be managed?

Egypt, together with Jordan and some European countries, has been examining the possibility of hybrid security and humanitarian scenarios being set up that leave space for the involvement of Hamas and other militant resistance factions.

And what will be the role of UNRWA? Despite an independent inquiry announcing this week that Israel has failed to provide any evidence to back its claim that 12 UNRWA local staff were complicit in the 7 October attack on Israel, the organisation is still being targeted by the Israeli government.

Other questions relate to the future of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that is based — or “constrained”, as one former PA source put it — in the West Bank. What is the future for even a semblance of Palestinian political cohesion given the PA’s hands-off approach to the war on Gaza?

What of normalisation, especially between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which Arab diplomatic sources say the Biden administration is continuing to push hard to secure ahead of US elections in the autumn? What if the Iranian-Israeli tit-for-tat confrontation, which began with an Israeli attack on an Iranian diplomatic compound, spins further out of control?

According to Morsy, with or without an Israeli ground offensive on Rafah, the PA has been severely weakened by its failure to show any leadership vis-à-vis the war on Gaza and by repeated Israeli attacks in the West Bank. On normalisation, Morsy believes the process will continue along parallel tracks, with the Saudi track the least likely to produce a deal any time soon “given that with or after the war on Gaza the Saudis are in a stronger negotiating position.”

The Iran-Israel front, meanwhile, will continue to have a life of its own, says Morsy. Iran has demonstrated that it will only attack Israel directly in response to direct Israeli attacks on Iran, as was the case in the Israeli operation against the Iranian Consulate in Damascus earlier this month.

“Iran demarcated its red lines very clearly this month, and in a way that is independent of developments in Gaza,” he says.

Nor, in the short term, is Iran in a position to increase financial support or arms supplies to Hamas or other militant groups backed by Tehran given the impact of the Israeli war on Gaza and US-led military operations in the Red Sea in response to Houthi attacks on Israel and Israeli-destined shipping.  

Among so many questions that still require answers, whatever the timing of the Israeli offensive against Rafah, there is also the issue of Hamas. Will the damage sustained by the group force it to go further underground, resulting in less coordinated operations? And Netanyahu himself? What is his political future, and what is the fate of his long-held goal of liquidating the Palestinian cause once and for all?

“But the biggest question of all today, which goes beyond this war and the horrific bloodshed it has brought, concerns the prospects for Palestinian statehood as it has been pursued since the Oslo Accords,” says Morsy.

“Should we be anticipating a new political process, one that has to start from scratch?”


* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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