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Determinants of Scaling Down

What is The Impact of External Pressures on Israel's Operation in Rafah?

28 May 2024

The Israeli forces' occupation of the Rafah border crossing was anticipated, given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statements last February. He clarified that Israel does not link resolving the hostage crisis with a military operation in Rafah aimed at eliminating Hamas's military presence. Netanyahu suggested that the Rafah operation could serve dual purposes: pressuring Hamas into agreeing to a truce or a series of truces involving the exchange of Palestinian prisoners in Israel for Israeli captives held by Hamas while ultimately ending its rule in the Gaza Strip. Nonetheless, pressures from Egypt and international parties, on one hand, and Israeli public opinion pressures, on the other, have succeeded in delaying the start of the Israeli military operation in Rafah for several months. The question remains whether these same pressures can set limits to this operation, transforming it from a full-scale war into a series of special operations targeting the elimination of as many Hamas leaders and fighters as possible.

This question can be addressed by exploring three points:

1. The views of Israeli political and security leaders on the expected outcomes of the incursion in Rafah.

2. The expected developments in the American stance on the Rafah operation.

3. Egypt's position, as it is the regional power most concerned about the impact of the Israeli operation in Rafah on its national security.

The Israeli Perspective

Israel's war cabinet has agreed on the necessity of launching a military operation in Rafah to achieve key objectives, primarily the eradication of Hamas's military power and the ending of its rule in Gaza. However, the scale and priority of this operation are contentious issues among officials and factions, largely due to differing views on hostage situations and the broader consequences of the conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocates that this operation should proceed without any obstacles or reservations, dismissing concerns about potential impacts on hostages held by Hamas (who claim Israeli military actions have already resulted in hostage deaths). He also downplays worries about the operation's effect on future US-Israeli relations, despite Washington's opposition to a full-scale military intervention that could result in significant Palestinian civilian casualties.

Conversely, Israeli Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi indirectly expressed his objection to the operation by sharply criticizing Netanyahu on May 11, accusing him of failing to develop a 'war strategy.' According to the Times of Israel, Halevi stated that the army was attacking the Jabalia area in northern Gaza again because there was no political momentum that would lead to establishing an alternative governing entity other than Hamas in Gaza.

Halevi's statement aligns with US efforts to end Hamas's rule in Gaza by replacing it with the Palestinian National Authority or handing over the enclave to an Arab regional coalition. This collides with Netanyahu's proposals, which aim only to destroy Hamas's military capabilities without seeking alternatives for governing Gaza. Halevi argues that without a clear political objective for the war, the goals of the Rafah operation remain undefined. This is particularly relevant given the army's need to return to northern Gaza after Hamas regained control of the area following the conclusion of Israeli military operations there last March.

Statements from Israeli officials indicate a consensus on the need to proceed with the plan to eliminate Hamas. However, while war cabinet member Benny Gantz ties this to the failure of efforts to broker a ceasefire and exchange hostages and prisoners, Netanyahu, supported by his hardline ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, sees no relevance between the hostage crisis and the Rafah operation. Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Halevi insists that continuing the war should be based on a clear plan for post-war governance of Gaza.

These differences can be understood within the context of the Israeli public's polarized opinion on the Rafah operation and the issue of freeing the hostages. A poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute on May 8 showed that 47% of Israeli Jews prioritize freeing the hostages, while 42% believe that completing the Rafah operation to achieve the war's goal of eradicating Hamas is more important. Given this close split, it is difficult for Israeli decision-makers to abandon either objective, potentially leading Israel to intensify its campaign in Rafah under the pretext that liberation of the captives is no longer a priority because Hamas insists that the price should be a permanent ceasefire and cessation of the war.

American Pressures

When Israel first hinted at conducting a comprehensive on-ground military operation in Rafah, the United States expressed reservations. President Joe Biden insisted that the US would not accept a large-scale military operation that threatens the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Instead, the US demanded that Israel focus on targeted operations to assassinate Hamas leaders and destroy the tunnel network in Gaza. Later, after realizing the difficulty of persuading Israel not to carry out the operation, Washington stipulated that Israel relocate most Rafah residents to safe areas before any military action there. Israel did not comply with this demand either. It proceeded to occupy the Rafah border crossing as a prelude to launching a significant attack, leading President Biden to suspend some American arms shipments to Israel. Despite this, Netanyahu declared that the suspension of arms shipments would not deter Israel from executing its military operation while attempting to mitigate the confrontation with Washington by beginning to relocate hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians from Rafah and northern Gaza to central and western areas.

Recognizing its inability to exert further pressure on Israel, especially considering that the decision to withhold arms and ammunition could impact Biden's chances of winning a second term (with his rival Donald Trump exploiting this by fully supporting Israel's invasion of Rafah and accusing the Biden administration of threatening Israel's security and supporting Hamas), the United States shifted towards attempting to entice Israel. It offered to provide Israel with intelligence information on the locations of Hamas leaders and the tunnels network in Gaza in exchange for halting the operation in Rafah.

However, this offer appears to have weakened the US position further, as the Israelis could argue that the Biden administration is protecting Hamas by deliberately withholding information about the locations of Hamas leaders and their tunnel network.

Ultimately, Washington seems to have no practical option left but to insist on relocating Palestinian civilians away from the battlefield before any military operation. The Times of Israel, on May 11, quoted an unnamed senior American official as saying that Israel had assured that the Israeli army would not enter Rafah before evacuating about 800,000 of the estimated one million Palestinians taking shelter there. If Israel recently succeeded in evacuating approximately 300,000 people from Rafah and northern Gaza within just three days (the mass evacuation began on May 8), what leverage is left for the US to pressure Israel if it manages to relocate another half million from Rafah within ten days at most?

Egypt's Position

Egypt's stance on the ongoing war in Gaza, particularly the Rafah operation, derives its strength from two main factors. First, the Israeli military operations in Rafah pose a serious threat to Egyptian national security due to the potential for Israeli airstrikes to reach the Egyptian border, even accidentally, given the proximity of the border. Second, the same Israeli operations could cause hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing the war to flood toward the Egyptian border, threatening Egypt's sovereignty over its territory. 

Israel is aware of the risks of these two potential developments during its Rafah operation, which could prompt Egypt to take escalatory measures, starting with freezing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, potentially leading to its cancellation and a return to hostile relations with all their political, security, and even military ramifications.

Certainly, Israel would not risk jeopardizing its peace treaty with Egypt. Cairo could coordinate with Washington to pressure Israel to limit or scale down the Rafah military operation and establish strict controls to prevent a massacre or mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza.

As a result, Israel would likely advance slowly in Rafah, combining targeted operations to assassinate Hamas leaders and destroy tunnels with carefully planned military actions to avoid provoking Washington and Cairo. Despite these precautions, there are no substantial guarantees that the situation won't deteriorate if Israeli military errors occur, potentially leading to shifts in Egyptian and American stances.