Smashing into Rafah

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 14 May 2024

Despite warnings from the US and the international community, the Israeli army has begun its offensive in Rafah.


Last December, at the height of Israel’s military onslaught on the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the “Philadelphi Corridor must be… under [Israel’s] control,” adding that his government would not accept any alternative.

Over the last four months, the Israelis have kept threatening that they will go into Rafah. Sensing the inherent threat of the Israeli army conducting military operations in Rafah adjacent to its border with Gaza, Egypt has warned of the “consequences” of such operations on Egyptian-Israeli relations.

Not only has Egypt raised the alarm, but the US administration has also been rightly worried that a major attack by Israeli forces on Rafah would cause an incalculable loss of life among the more than one million Palestinian civilians sheltered in the city, the majority of them displaced from northern and central Gaza. Before last 7 October, the population of Rafah was a quarter of a million Palestinians.

The US administration has shared and supported the objective of the Israeli attack on Rafah. Netanyahu has kept hammering away at the idea that without destroying the four Hamas battalions in Rafah his “total victory” in his war against the Palestinian group will not be reached. He has also claimed that exercising more military pressure on Hamas will free the Israeli hostages.

In order to dissuade the Israelis from launching a major military offensive on Rafah, the US has said that there are ways to destroy the four Hamas battalions through “targeted military operations” and not a full-scale invasion. In the meantime, the Biden administration has made it clear that it will not support the Israelis “smashing into Rafah.”

On 6 May, Israeli troops launched their attack on the eastern part of Rafah, and the following day they raised the Israeli flag on the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing. At the time of writing on 12 May, 300,000 Palestinian civilians have left Rafah in search of safer areas further north. There have been press reports that the Israeli troops will advance to other parts of the town.

In an interview with the US network CNN’s Erin Burnett on 8 May, US President Joe Biden said that “if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities – that deal with that problem.”

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centres… it’s just wrong. We’re not going to – we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells.”

Lest his administration be accused by the Republicans and the pro-Israel Democrats in the US Congress of failing a major ally, Biden said that “we are not walking away from Israel’s security,” but “we’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas,” referring to Rafah.

The interview coincided with a pause in a shipment of munitions to Israel. Before a Congressional hearing on 8 May, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said that Washington had “paused one shipment of high payload munitions over concerns about [Israel’s] looming operations” in Rafah and that the US administration would “continue to do what’s necessary to ensure that Israel has the means to defend itself.”

He told the hearing that the Pentagon “is currently reviewing some near-term security assistance shipments in the context of the unfolding events in Rafah.”

On 9 May, the UK Financial Times quoted an unnamed senior US official as saying that the process that had led to the pause had begun last month with the Pentagon ultimately withholding 1,800- 2,000 pound bombs and 1,700 500 pound bombs and adding that the administration is “especially focused on the end-use of the 2,000 pound bombs and the impact they could have in dense urban areas, as we have seen in other parts of Gaza.”

As of 8 May, the US, according to the senior official, had not “made a final determination on how to proceed with this shipment”.

The official Israeli reaction was one of defiance, which was not a surprise. Netanyahu said that his country would “fight alone,” if forced to, and, typical of his usual grandstanding, he said that it would fight “by its fingernails.” Not everyone in Israel believed him.

At a meeting with the press, White House Press Secretary Karin Jean-Pierre clarified the US position with regard to the “pause” of ammunition shipments to Israel by saying that the “president has directed his team with continuing to work with Israel to refine their strategy [in Rafah] to inflict an enduring defeat on Hamas” and that “smashing into Rafah, in his view, will not advance that objective.”

She added that the US had “passed the largest supplemental appropriation for emergency assistance to Israel”. I doubt if the hawks in the Israeli ruling coalition, foremost among them Netanyahu, will buy such an argument.

Pausing the shipments might lead the Israelis to reconsider their tactics in Rafah, but the main sticking point for the US administration, and for the Egyptian government as well, will be how to deal with the Israeli control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing. This has been closed since the Israelis took control of it and no humanitarian assistance has entered into Gaza.

Once the war on Gaza is over, the Palestinian Authority (PA) should be responsible for running the Palestinian side of the crossing. The agreement of 2005, negotiated at the time by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, whereby observers from the European Union were to be stationed at the crossing could be revived.

As a consequence of the closing of the Palestinian side of the crossing, people will die in the streets due to near-famine conditions in the area and the lack of medical care and fuel, according to some international organisations still operating in Gaza.

The Israeli war on Gaza has turned into near-genocide, and famine has become an instrument in the war.


*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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