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A Scenario of Delay

The future of the Rafah operation amid Israeli threats and American influence

17 April 2024

On March 5, 2024, the UN Security Council (UNSC) issued Resolution 2728, calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. This resolution brought renewed hope for an end to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, which has been raging since October 7 of the previous year. At the very least, it had the potential to prevent Israel from launching a large-scale ground attack in Rafah, located in the south of Gaza. However, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, promptly rejected the UNSC resolution. He argued that Resolution 2728 would jeopardize the ongoing negotiations with Hamas, which aimed to reach a deal involving the exchange of Israeli and Palestinian prisoners.

Effect of the Ceasefire

Prior to the issuance of Resolution 2728, and particularly since the first week of February, Tel Aviv had repeatedly stated through Netanyahu and other officials that it is preparing to launch a ground operation in Rafah to eliminate the remaining Hamas members in Gaza. 

Resolution 2728, which sought an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during the holy month of Ramadan, is a step towards a lasting and sustainable ceasefire. The resolution also calls for the release of all captives, the parties' compliance with their commitments under international law, and allowing entry and safe passage of greater humanitarian supplies to civilians in the entire Strip. However, it is thought that this directive was issued solely to prevent Israel from carrying out the Rafah operation during the remaining days of Ramadan. The United States' decision to abstain from vetoing 2728, while confirming that it is a non-binding resolution[1], demonstrates the resolution's limited purpose: To pressure Tel Aviv to abandon the Rafah operation or at least postpone it until after Ramadan to avoid further provocation of the Muslim world. Instead, it is hoped Israel will engage in specific, intelligence operations to eliminate   Hamas, or to and commit to putting an end to civilian casualties.  

The impact of a ceasefire decision on developments in Gaza aside, calculations for the possible Rafah battle later will be determined by the probable responses to the following questions:

How long would it take Israel to partially respond to American pressure by relocating the 1.4 million people living in Rafah before commencing the operation? Will the transfer of residents from Rafah to other areas expose them to danger, as previous Israeli raids caused thousands of deaths when northern Gaza residents made their way toward so-called safe passages? What is Israel's plan following the possible Rafah operation? Will it keep its forces there indefinitely? How can it manage the Gaza Strip if it opposes the solutions recommended by the US, the EU, and a number of Arab countries ­- particularly the return of the Gaza Strip to Palestinian Authority control?

Addressing these concerns requires evaluating the influence of internal pressures in Israel to swiftly carry out the Rafah operation, as well as external pressures that aim to prevent it or at least eliminate Hamas without causing a "huge massacre" of civilians.

Israeli Doubts

There is a widespread belief in Israeli public opinion that Netanyahu and war cabinet leaders are merely using the threat of an offensive in Rafah to put pressure on the parties mediating between Israel and Hamas to reach a temporary truce. The latter includes the exchange of hostages and prisoners between the two parties but does not bind Israel to end the war for good. Netanyahu, along with Gantz and Gallant, believe that the mediators (the US, Egypt, and Qatar) can persuade Hamas to accept the temporary truce because of the potential regional and international complications that the Rafah operation will cause. 

The following factors contribute to concerns about the Israeli government's commitment in carrying out the Rafah operation:

The Israeli military authorities' inability to meet the timeline for implementing the Rafah operation set by both Gantz and Gallant. Both declared on February 18 that this process is irreversible and must be completed before the beginning of the month of Ramadan (March 11, 2024), if attempts to reach a truce with Hamas and retrieve the kidnapped individuals fail.

1- The Israeli government's rejection of Hamas's demands for the return of hostages and prisoners. This includes putting an end to the war, withdrawing the Israeli army totally from Gaza, and ensuring that humanitarian relief is delivered without restrictions. As a result, the ongoing unsuccessful negotiation suggests that it is being used to justify delays of the Rafah operation.

2- No actual military preparations to carry out the operation soon. Amos Harel, an Israeli military expert, stated in an article published in the daily "Haaretz" on March 21, 2024, that the military operation in Rafah is fraught with issues that jeopardize its implementation. There is currently only a small Israeli presence in Gaza, the smallest since the war began, consisting of three and a half brigades. Operations in Khan Yunis were also greatly decreased when the majority of the forces were withdrawn and allowed to rest outside the Strip. 

3- Netanyahu promised US President Joe Biden that the Israeli army would not launch the Rafah operation until the civilian population was relocated to safe regions. There are no indicators that the deportation process has begun.

4- Some Israeli analysts propose alternatives to a large-scale operation in Rafah to prevent jeopardizing Israel's capacity to rule the Gaza Strip militarily following this potential fight. On March 21, 2024, Giora Eiland, former Israeli National Security Advisor, stated in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, "If the prisoner exchange negotiations fail, Israel will have to agree with the United States on the necessity of carrying out a major operation in Rafah in exchange for Israel's pledge to halt the war quickly, under three conditions. These include returning all captives and prohibiting reconstruction plans until Hamas is removed from power in the Gaza Strip and other troops invading Gaza, whether Palestinian Authority forces or forces from Arab or Western countries in coordination with Israel." The "major operation" Eiland referred to involves transforming the operation from a comprehensive ground invasion into a limited operation that requires only a partial transfer of the civilian population from Rafah. This is in addition to the implementation of large specific operations to destroy the tunnels in Rafah and eliminate the largest possible number of Hamas leaders and members, stop the fighting, and put pressure on the mediators to accept Israel's conditions.

5- Former Israeli security specialists have warned against executing the Rafah operation without first anticipating events on the northern front with Hezbollah. General Yitzhak Brick, a former member of the Israeli army staff, stated in an interview with Haaretz on February 21 that " [Israeli] decision-makers failed to consider the fact that the escalation of fighting with Hezbollah in Lebanon as a result of the entry into Rafah would necessitate the transfer of additional forces from the Gaza Strip to the northern region. Removing forces from Gaza City resulted in the return of Hamas and refugees, and this will also occur in Khan Yunis and the camps in the middle of the Strip because there will not be enough soldiers to prevent this from happening due to significant reductions in the army over the last two decades. When we enhance one industry, we undermine another." 

Implementation Conditions

While these considerations, which cast doubt on Israel's ability to conduct a land offensive in Rafah, are valid, they do not necessarily mean the implementation of the attack will be delayed further. Netanyahu and Tel Aviv's security and military leaders maintain that the inability to carry out the operation will result in a long war of attrition with Hamas. It will also jeopardize the release of hostages and will prevent residents of Israeli cities surrounding Gaza from returning to their homes. In that sense, perhaps Israel will engage in combat in Rafah regardless of the repercussions. However, it is predicted that the beginning of preparations for this potential operation will consider the following conditions:

1- Reducing American opposition to the operation:  Extending the period for transferring the majority of Rafah’s residents to “safe areas” will automatically increase the pressure on Hamas. The latter will then realize the seriousness of Israel’s intentions to invade the city and that American opposition to the operation is ineffective. As a result, Hamas may come to accept the peace agreement and the handover of hostages and prisoners on Israeli terms. 

2- Postponing the process of moving Rafah residents away from expected fighting locations until after Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Israel was and continues to be cautious about sparking religious sentiments in the West Bank, which may open a wide front with the Palestinians. 

3- The possibility of Israel allowing the return of a large portion of the northern and central Gaza population. Israel may consider allowing the displaced residents of Gaza to return, which could potentially decrease the population density in Rafah. This, in turn, would grant Israeli forces more freedom to operate on the ground. Although transferring these numbers will take a long time, it will confirm Israel's intention to remove Hamas (which is what the majority of Israelis desire) while also mitigating American opposition to the operation.

American Pressure

If internal pressures in Israel are moving toward greater caution in implementing the ground operation in Rafah rather than abandoning it entirely, external pressures appear to be more inclined to halt the Gaza war and seek comprehensive, political remedies to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These remedies include implementing the two-state solution and establishing strong guarantees for Israel’s security. Here, it is important to focus on the American stance on a potential Rafah operation as it is the most crucial for all Israeli decisions. 

Since Israel announced its readiness for the Rafah operation, the Biden administration has adopted a middle-ground approach. It has positioned itself between the European and Arab demands to cease all fighting, and Israel's assertion that the operation is unavoidable. As a result, the US has pursued an independent agenda: it did not endorse international efforts to end the war, but did exert pressure on Israel to minimize civilian casualties. Additionally, it played a role in delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.

Regarding Israel's plans to launch a ground operation in Rafah, the Biden administration stated that the operation would not commence until the city's residents were relocated to safe areas. At the same time, they confirmed that the Israeli plan in this regard did not meet the standards required by Washington. On March 24, 2024, Vice President Kamala Harris said “Israel could face consequences if it launches a ground assault on the city of Rafah. We have been clear in multiple conversations and in every way that any major military operation in Rafah would be a huge mistake. I have studied the maps – there’s nowhere for those folks to go.”

This US perspective on the Rafah operation can be explained by numerous causes, which include:

1- The US public opinion is divided on the Gaza war. Some people want the war to end due to Israel's killing, destruction, and starvation of civilians. On the other hand, there are those who support Israel's right to self-defense and believe that the war should continue. They argue that it is necessary for Israeli citizens to regain their lost sense of security since the October 7 attack, as they mentioned. Biden and his Democratic Party are concerned about this divide. The party has a left faction that opposes the continuation of the war and Biden's stance on Israel. They worry that this division could jeopardize Biden's prospects of winning the presidential election on November 5.

2- The Biden administration is expressing concern over Israel's plan to eliminate Hamas through an assault on Rafah. This move is seen as potentially reinforcing Tel Aviv's stance against the two-state solution. The American administration believes that such an action could further its broader strategy of strengthening the international liberal order, which it currently leads. This strategy is aimed at countering efforts by Russia, China, and Iran to establish an alternative system that would diminish American international influence and pose a threat to its interests in the Middle East and beyond.

3- Since the start of the Gaza war, the Biden administration has aimed to minimize the escalation of the conflict. There is concern that if Israel proceeds with the Rafah operation, it could lead to the complete mobilization of Lebanese Hezbollah. This would compel the US to fulfill its obligation to safeguard Israel's security, potentially resulting in direct military intervention.

For all of these factors, determining the future of the Rafah conflict is not easy. One scenario is that a window of opportunity will open to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas for a period of six months or more. This would allow the US administration to focus on its electoral battle in November and reduce the international pressure it faces due to its complacency in the Israeli war. The other scenario is that Tel Aviv will launch the operation after evacuating the majority of Rafah's residents. This would put the entire region on the verge of a large-scale war, which would undoubtedly complicate matters. It may even allow Donald Trump to reclaim the White House in the upcoming elections.

[1] A binding resolution is one that was voted for by at least nine of the fifteen member countries with all five big countries being part of the nine.