Will an Israeli assault on Rafah be the final bloody slaughter to cap the destruction of Gaza? More than 1.3 million Palestinians, including 610,000 children, have been forcibly corralled into the ever-shrinking, unsanitary hellhole of this small city on the Gazan border with Egypt. They now await their fate. Most have been displaced as many as five or six times in what is now comfortably the largest forced displacement in Palestinian history. Many are eating grass or animal feed and drinking foul water. Rafah is the last place of semi-refugee in Gaza, but also the primary gateway for the lifesaving aid that permits this ghostly Palestinian existence to continue — for now.
This Israeli threat escalated at the tail end of yet another fruitless Antony Blinken mission to the region. The chief American diplomat has made five trips to the Middle East since Oct. 7 but has come away empty-handed every time. If he feels embarrassed at the way Benjamin Netanyahu manhandles him, he has been trying hard not to show it. After yet another bruising encounter with the Israeli prime minister, Blinken was both late and tired when he appeared for his press conference. While Blinken said that Hamas’ response to a US-Egyptian-Qatari proposal left possibilities for a deal, Netanyahu crushed all hope once again by stating this was “delusional.” Instead of a deal on the release of hostages and a ceasefire, Palestinians were left contemplating the prospect of yet more mass carnage.
The dominant question for all of them is: where to next? Israeli spokespeople just cannot or will not answer that simple and obvious question. Netanyahu has instructed the Israeli military to provide him with options on this.
Where can the Palestinian civilians in Rafah go? Do they get given some corridor to travel north, to the center of Gaza? But where is safe? The roads are bombed and cratered. The Gaza Strip is littered with unexploded ordnance and buildings on the brink of collapse. Humanitarian agencies have no means of preparing safe shelters in these areas.
Any major attack on Rafah would be hammering yet another nail into the already well-nailed coffins of the hostages left in Gaza. Most Israelis have come to the conclusion that Netanyahu cares not a jot for their welfare.
When might this happen? This is not clear. No doubt Israel will further torture those in Rafah by keeping them guessing. Based on previous experience, the Israeli army will give them a two-hour warning. Israeli forces are bombing Rafah as it is, so it is not safe even now. Egypt has reportedly warned Hamas that Israel is giving it two weeks to give up the remaining hostages before starting operations in Rafah. If there is to be an evacuation of hundreds of thousands from this area, even two weeks may not be enough time. Remember, thousands more are now injured and sick than when many were forced to evacuate the north last year.
Egypt has feared this moment, not just since October, but for years. Egyptian leaders know full well that Israel has dreamed of dumping Gaza or the Palestinians of Gaza on Egypt. The desire to wash Israel’s bloodied hands of its responsibility for their fate is clear. Egypt has threatened to suspend its peace agreement with Tel Aviv if this goes ahead.
The dominant question for Palestinians in Rafah is: where to next? The Israelis cannot or will not answer that simple question.
A few mild expressions of concern from American and European leaders have made their way into the public domain. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, stated that an Israeli military offensive on Rafah “would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt.” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: “The people in Gaza cannot disappear into thin air.” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said he is “deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah.” It hardly adds up to serious pressure on Israel.
But what about US President Joe Biden? He has just stated that Israel has gone “over the top.” Pressure is growing, including from within his own administration, to go much further and read the riot act. Netanyahu is treating him with contempt and needs to be shown that he cannot get away with it. The US has a myriad of options at its disposal to display serious displeasure if Biden has the courage. Statements will not be enough. They never have been.
International leaders need to rid themselves of the delusion that Netanyahu has ever wanted any form of deal with Hamas. He has always pushed for what he deems to be “total victory.” Absent a massive amount of coordinated American and European pressure, which has never looked like materializing, Netanyahu has zero political or personal interest in harnessing himself to an agreement that sees the survival of Hamas, an entity he has sworn to destroy. The general Israeli public would not trust a deal with Hamas, let alone Bibi’s base.
Total victory is the only scenario where Netanyahu might conceivably survive politically. Only if this consummate, if highly slippery, political operator can turn to his critics and proclaim that he has delivered the end of Hamas as a threat does he have a chance. So far, he has had few trophies, with hardly any senior Hamas leaders taken out, and with 134 hostages still unaccounted for.
But world leaders should not be surprised at how Israel is conducting its destruction of Gaza. If they had listened to the Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, they would see that they are delivering on their promises in terms of the scale of the onslaught. Many have explicitly said that they want to smash Hamas everywhere in Gaza, so therefore they cannot leave four Hamas battalions in Rafah. Many have sworn to depopulate Gaza or at least thin out the population.
Israeli Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter said that the military campaign in Gaza was explicitly designed to force the mass displacement of Palestinians. In a television interview last November, he proclaimed: “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba.” Remarkably, many of the same Israeli politicians promising a new Nakba remain in denial about the first one in 1948.
One reason Rafah is even an option is because major global powers have shamefully ignored the rulings of the International Court of Justice. Israel has to return to the court by Feb. 23 to report on its progress in adhering to those rulings. Let us be clear. A major assault on Rafah alone would almost certainly breach one, if not two or even three, of those rulings: the first to avoid genocide, the second to facilitate humanitarian aid and the third to preserve and not destroy evidence of genocide.
But alongside genocide, what Palestinians also fear is the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. How long will it be before Israel creates a breach in the Egyptian border wall and drives thousands into the Sinai? It would be a dream fulfilled to expel hundreds of thousands. For some, this may have seemed far-fetched when many observers, including myself, pitched this as a plausible scenario back in October. Frankly, it is fast becoming the most likely outcome.
• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London.