Three Questions About Rafah – The New York Times

The looming battle for Rafah — a city on the southern end of Gaza, farthest from where Israel’s invasion began — embodies the brutal dynamics of the conflict. The war is both a military operation against Hamas, an extremist organization that has vowed more terrorist attacks against Israel, and a humanitarian crisis that has brought death, hunger and displacement to Gazan civilians.

The humanitarian crisis is clear. During its four-month invasion of Gaza, Israel has killed more than 29,000 people, many of them children. The civilian toll, as a share of the population, is among the highest from any modern war. Many more Gazans have fled their homes and are struggling to find food. An assault on Rafah, which has become a refuge for more than half of Gaza’s population, would worsen the misery.

But the military importance of Rafah for Hamas is also real, experts say. On Oct. 7, Hamas invaded Israel, murdering, sexually assaulting and kidnapping civilians. Since the attack, Hamas’s leaders have refused to release dozens of Israeli hostages. With Israel having taken control of much of northern and central Gaza, at least some Hamas leaders and their weapons seem to be in tunnels under Rafah.

Two things, then, are simultaneously true: To defeat a violent enemy, Israel may need to invade Rafah. And an invasion of Rafah would almost certainly worsen the war’s awful civilian toll.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll examine three questions: What does Israel hope to accomplish by invading? What might forestall an invasion? And how might the civilian toll be reduced if an invasion happens?

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has set an ambitious goal: Eliminating Hamas. The goal is also contentious.

Some Israelis wish their government would instead prioritize the release of hostages. Many U.S. officials, meanwhile, believe the elimination of Hamas is unrealistic. “Operations that kill militants often radicalize others,” my colleagues Julian Barnes and Edward Wong note.

Still, an invasion of Rafah could debilitate Hamas. Without control of Rafah, as Yonah Jeremy Bob, The Jerusalem Post’s senior military correspondent, has written, “Hamas would lose its last major remaining battalions, its last large city for hiding its leadership and human-shield hostages, and its only remaining way to rearm and smuggle in weapons from outside of Gaza.”

One sign of Rafah’s importance to Hamas came during a nighttime raid last week, when Israeli forces stormed a building there and rescued two hostages.

The most likely path for avoiding an invasion would involve an extended cease-fire in exchange for the release of about 130 hostages that Hamas is still holding in Gaza. “Either our hostages will be returned, or we will expand the fighting to Rafah,” said Benny Gantz, a centrist Israeli politician who joined the government after the Oct. 7 attacks.

There are certainly impediments to a deal. For one thing, Hamas’s leaders understand that the hostages give them leverage: Israel’s military might be even more aggressive if no hostages remained. For another, Netanyahu has often seemed more interested in destroying Hamas than winning the hostages’ release. Israel has also balked at releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages.

Still, Netanyahu faces domestic pressure to bring home the hostages. Hamas leaders, for their part, may be able to spare their own lives in a cease-fire.

If Israel does invade, officials around the world have called on it to protect civilians in Rafah. President Biden and the leaders of many other countries say Israel has been callous about civilian lives in the war’s first four months. Last week, the International Court of Justice declined to oppose an invasion of Rafah but reiterated its order that Israel protect civilians. The court has also ordered Hamas to release the hostages.

How might Rafah’s civilians be protected? In many wars, civilians find safety in a neighboring country, but Egypt has largely refused to accept refugees. It is instead building a wall near Rafah.

Some military experts say that Israel has already taken steps to protect civilians, such as creating humanitarian corridors that allow civilian Gazans to flee battle zones — even though disguised Hamas militants might escape too. “Israel has adjusted almost everything in their approach to evacuate civilians,” John Spencer of the Modern War Institute at West Point said. Over the past two months, the daily death toll in Gaza has declined to about 150 (including both fighters and civilians), according to Gazan officials, down from more than 400 per day in October.

But 150 daily deaths is still a terrible toll, and many human rights experts say Israel could reduce it. In Rafah, that could involve several actions: less aerial bombing; the creation of both humanitarian corridors to leave Rafah and temporary safe zones within the city; and fewer restrictions on the humanitarian aid that Israel allows to enter.

Biden administration officials are frustrated that Netanyahu does not have a clearer plan for protecting civilians in Rafah, according to my colleagues in Washington. Some congressional Democrats argue that the U.S. should interrupt its flow of weapons to Israel unless Israel gives a higher priority to protecting innocent Gazans.

Inside Rafah, many people are simply scared. “We’re trying to live with the war conditions, but they are very difficult,” Salem Baris, 55, who has fled to Rafah, told Al Jazeera. Ten children in his family have been wearing white hospital coveralls — intended for adults — to stay warm. “I hope this nightmare ends, and I can go home soon,” Baris said.

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