Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 605, 15 February 2024

War expands to Rafah, the border town
Nuha Aamina

In the news
On 12 February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the military operation would continue "until total victory will bring about the release of all of our hostages." According to the Hamas-run health ministry, 94 people, including women and children have been killed in Rafah. Meanwhile, the same day, the Israeli military claimed that thirty-one hostages may have died in the previous day's operation.

On 9 February, Israel expanded its campaign into southern Gaza, the city of Rafah, forcing civilians to flee. Spokesperson of Netanyahu, Cal Heinrich, stated that if “Israel's hands are tied by the international community, or if we take the pressure for Hamas actions," would call for "more terrorism worldwide." On the same day, the Palestinian Authority called the UN Security Council to pay attention as “this step threatens security and peace in the region and the world.”

On 15 February, UN relief chief Martin Griffiths warned that 1.4 million Palestinians who reside in Rafah would be forced to flee to Egypt if Israel carried out its military operation. Griffiths stated: “The possibility of a military operation in Rafah with the possibility of the crossing closing down, with the possibility of spillover, … a sort of Egyptian nightmare, … is one that is right before our eyes.”

On 14 February, the Foreign Minister of Palestine, Riyad al Maliki, accused Netanyahu of wanting “to continue the war for his personal career, for his personal future” as his priorities are not “the lives of innocent people, both in Israel and in Palestine, the Israeli hostages and the Palestinian innocent people in Gaza.”

On 11 February, US President Joe Biden during a call with Netanyahu, pushed back on the plan for a military operation in Rafah stating: "A military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there."

On 14 February, German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock, visited Jerusalem and stated that Germany, after France, the US and the UK, was pushing for sanctions against extremist settlers who attack Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. She stated: "Let's agree on sanctions together in Europe. For this, we need all 27 member states. We as Germans have pushed this on the European path.” 

On 13 February, Egypt held talks with the US, Israeli and Qatari officials; however, there was no breakthrough to a truce in Gaza. 

On 10 February, the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, referring to the US, stated: "If you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide fewer arms in order to prevent so many people being killed." He added: "If the international community believes that this is a slaughter, that too many people are being killed, maybe we have to think about the provision of arms; Netanyahu doesn't listen (to) anyone."

Issues at large
First, the geographic significance of Rafah town. When Israel carried out the ground offensive in northern Gaza, more than a million civilians had to flee to the south. The Gaza Strip has three border crossings. Erez allows people in the north to cross into Israel. Kerem Shalom was the primary border through which humanitarian aid would enter. However, Rafah is the exit to leave Gaza and has no communication with Israel. It currently shelters 1.5 million people and is highly congested with routes blocked by tents set up by families. In 2007, after Hamas took control of the territory, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade for security purposes, restricting the movement of people and goods. In October 2023, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi warned an exodus from Gaza would “liquidate” the Palestinian cause and urged the people to “remain steadfast in their land”. 

Second, the significance of Rafah for Israel's final push against the Hamas. Israel has carried out attacks through Northern Gaza, Gaza City, Deir-el-Balah and Khan-Younis reaching Rafah. Israeli claims that Rafah is the final point where four Hamas battalions are staying. For Israel, the military operation in Rafah would push Hamas to the brink. While Netanyahu aims at wiping out Hamas, the latter remains sceptical of Israel stopping its war if the hostages were released. 

Third, the failure to reach a ceasefire. In early February, a ceasefire proposed by the Hamas referred to the following three:  de-escalation; an exchange of Palestinian hostages and Israeli hostages; ending Israel’s blockade in Gaza; and increasing the supply of aid. In response, on 7 February, at a news conference, Netanyahu stated that “surrendering to the delusional demands of Hamas ..will not lead to the release of the hostages. It will only invite another massacre.” He emphasised that “there is no other solution than total victory. If Hamas survives in Gaza, it is only a matter of time until the next massacre.” Later, the discussion in Cairo with other actors also did not result in a breakthrough.
 
Fourth, ineffective international pressure on Israel. Previously, the US has shown its support for Israel's actions. However, the recent attacks have led to a change in the US stance. Biden described the military response as "over the top.” Other European countries responded similarly. Besides, ICJ's ruling on South Africa's genocide case against Israel has recognised the rights of Palestinians and the necessity for their protection from genocide. Despite the pressure, Netanyahu is unwavering in his military approach. 

In perspective
First, the impending catastrophe. If Israel continues its operation, it would increase the death toll. These neighbouring countries may face international pressure to open their borders. Egypt and other neighbouring countries may not be too keen to receive displaced Palestinians.

Second, the reluctance of Hamas and Israel to move forward. Despite international pressure, Israel and the Hamas do not seem to relent to each other’s conditions. Netanyahu’s stance reflects a maximalist position as he uses the hostage rescue operation to justify the attacks. As he plans to wipe out the Hamas, it is clear that he won’t stop until the endgame. Meanwhile, the Hamas distrust Israel of ending the war until a ceasefire agreement is signed between both parties. Israel may take the war beyond its territory under the pretext of destroying the Hamas, who would cross to neighbouring countries. 

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