Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu views the conflict in Gaza as a zero-sum game — with Israel either destroying Hamas or losing the war.
Given that is his strategy, the assault on the city of Rafah in the southernmost part of Gaza, where the Israeli Defense Forces believe up to four battalions of Hamas terrorists are holed up, makes perfect sense, at least to him.
On Saturday, in the face of growing international concern about the forthcoming operation, Netanyahu announced: “Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying ‘lose the war, keep Hamas there.’” During the night, Israel began a missile bombardment of the city.
The battle for Rafah will be like no other since the fighting began in the wake of the Hamas terrorist attacks which left 1,200 Israelis dead, hundreds injured, and 240 kidnapped.
Rafah, which had a pre-war population of around 171,000 people, now contains 1.2 million desperate men, women and children, living in pitiful conditions, suffering from malnutrition and all the diseases associated with a chronic lack of clean drinking water.
The city’s two, partly functioning, hospitals are full to bursting with the sick, elderly and those horrendously wounded in the endless Israeli air strikes. Rafah is no longer a city but a refugee camp on the brink of catastrophe where hope has long since disappeared. And all of that indescribable misery is unfolding in an area of around seventy square miles — for reference that’s about the size of Washington.
Netanyahu announced last week that he had ordered his military to prepare a plan to evacuate Rafah, which has been a corridor for humanitarian assistance in southern Gaza where Palestinians had previously been told to flee to for safety. But to where does that retched, dispossessed community flee when they are already living in the last “safe” place in Gaza?
It is almost impossible to see how the IDF can clear Rafah without bringing the suffering of the Palestinian people to a new and unimaginable level. And if there are indeed four of five battalions of Hamas fighters ready and willing to die for their perverse cause, the cost inflicted upon the IDF will be high — possibly higher than that yet seen in any battle so far fought by Israel.
Hamas have shown themselves to be capable, ruthless fighters, trained no doubt by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force in the use of improvised explosive attacks, sniping and ambushes. It is likely that the terrorists will turn every building into a strong point to be held at all costs, and only to be destroyed by carefully placed explosives at the precise moment it falls into the hands of exhausted Israeli soldiers. The IDF body count will be tragically high.
Then there is also the question of the hostages and what will become of them if the assault on Rafah turns into a bloodbath. This morning the IDF announced that two hostages had been rescued in a special forces raid in Rafah. But there are still 134 Israelis held captive by Hamas.
One man who lost three loved ones on October 7, and who is still hoping that a family member who was taken hostage is still alive, told me before the latest raid that he believes the fate of the kidnapped are no longer a priority for Netanyahu.
“So far military action has resulted in the rescuing of one hostage while diplomacy has seen more than 100 released — do the math,” he added. “We, like many others, have suffered enough. My family hasn’t had time to grieve for those we’ve lost because every waking minute is filled with worry for those who have been taken. We are all trapped by this endless trauma.”
For Netanyahu the battle for Rafah might be the last push before total victory but for many within the international community it could also be the tipping point that brings western, and possibly US, support to an end.
Washington has already warned Israel that an invasion of Rafah as part of its assault on Gaza would be a “disaster,” while the European Union and the United Nations both expressed their own concerns. The German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, posted on X on Saturday: “An offensive by the Israeli army on Rafah would be a human catastrophe. The people in Gaza cannot disappear into thin air.” The Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said any ground offensive would have “disastrous consequences,” while Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry warned of “very serious repercussions” if Rafah was stormed. The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, said he was “deeply concerned” about the prospective offensive, adding: “The priority must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out.”
Netanyahu has declared that his war aim is the destruction of Hamas. By contrast Hamas’s war aims were to increase Israel’s international isolation, demonstrate the IDF’s inability to keep the Jewish state secure and derail the Abraham Accords — the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. As the IDF storms Rafah, it seems that Hamas will achieve its war aims completely.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.