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Aaron Cohen-Gold
Deputy Director, ELNET UK

Rafah City: The war’s biggest test is coming

Rafah, Gaza and its borders. Copyright owned by Peter Hermes Furian / GettyImages
Rafah, Gaza and its borders. Copyright owned by Peter Hermes Furian / GettyImages

Since the brutal Hamas invasion of Israel on 7 October 2023, a date that will be etched forever into the long memory of the Jewish People, the Israeli government has pursued three primary goals: the return of the Israeli hostages, the total degradation of Hamas as a capable governing force in Gaza able to invade or terrorise Israel, and the elimination or exile of its leaders behind the carnage of that fateful Shabbat morning.

With the IDF having cleared Hamas from most of the northern Gaza Strip, taken operational control over the vast bulk of Khan Younis in the South, defeated 60-70 percent of Hamas’ battalions, successfully targeted several senior Hamas leaders including its Deputy, and so far negotiated the return of just under half the Israeli hostages, the Israeli response to Hamas’ attacks – while ongoing, painful, and widescale – have evidently sought to deliver these goals.

Now, however, comes a perilous moment.

Rafah City is the third largest city in Gaza. In normal times it is usually home to fewer than 200,000 people. Today, owing to the evacuation of Palestinian civilians from Gaza City and Khan Younis, it is home to well over 1million people. Alongside this huge influx of innocent people, a significant number of Hamas terrorists, seeking one final hideout against Israel’s counter-terrorism operation, will be amongst them.

But there is another reason why Hamas has flocked to this city. Rafah is the only Palestinian city in Gaza that borders another country to Israel. As a result, Rafah is Hamas’ access point to the Middle East (via Egypt) – the gateway through which it can smuggle weapons, terror operatives, administrative and strategic documentation out of its Red Sea smuggling routes and into the Palestinian enclave, sustaining its forever war against Israel. It is also the means through which Hamas can control and distribute vast swathes of the international aid that enters Gaza from Egypt, consolidating its domestic power over both the local population and agencies like UNRWA. Rafah is not just a place of last resort for Hamas but is of immense strategic value, without which it cannot govern its de facto military state.

For Hamas, if the war ends with them still in control of Rafah with over 1million Palestinians, on a border not shared or monitored by Israel, it will be viewed as a victory for them from which they can rebuild and launch another war against Israel with the aim of repeating 7 October. For Israel, it would represent a strategic defeat in a war full of tactical victories.

Yet, the costs of an Israeli operation in Rafah could be enormous in terms of innocent Palestinian casualties and, for Israel, diplomatic support for its war effort.  On a humanitarian level, it is hard to imagine where else in Gaza any of Rafah’s 1million plus residents can be safely evacuated to – vast swathes of the strip are in ruin after Hamas turned its cities into military compounds. Hamas, as we know, don’t care about the fate of Palestinian civilians. But Israel does, even as tragic casualties continue to mount, and we know through the quarter of a million tons of aid it has already delivered to Gaza that it wants to avoid a worsening of the humanitarian crisis there.

On a diplomatic level, Egypt has reportedly warned Israel that any IDF takeover of the Egypt-Gaza border might prompt a re-evaluation of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (though they have since walked back some of their harsher statements), worsening the security threat against Israel. Similarly, any spill over of Palestinian refugees from Gaza into Egypt, forgetting for a moment the immense ethical weight of such a proposition, would threaten the stability of Egypt’s military government and no doubt give a shot into the arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; the spiritual antecedents of Hamas who remain President Sisi’s biggest domestic threat. That is not something Egypt’s government would likely tolerate.

It is for all these reasons that the US has called on Israel to develop a ‘credible and executable plan’ for the protection of civilians in Rafah before conducting an operation that might otherwise be “disastrous”, in the words of the US National Security Council Spokesperson. Even though Israel has proved during this conflict that it does undertake such planning, through its neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood evacuation notices, daily humanitarian pauses and aid corridors, this is no doubt true. The costs of getting an operation in Rafah wrong might not only cause an overwhelming humanitarian crisis but also prove strategically as damaging as not undertaking an operation at all. Yet, it is clear even from the US’ precautionary language that it too understands that Israel needs to confront Hamas in Rafah but that it must do so in a carefully calibrated way. Allowing Rafah to remain in the hands of Hamas will allow the organisation to bounce back and for history to repeat itself, with tragic consequences for yet another generation of Israelis and Palestinians. There is no virtue in this scenario for Israel.

Rafah is Israel’s biggest test yet, one set up by Hamas intentionally, and perhaps unprecedented in the course of modern warfare. It brings the fate of Hamas, Egypt-Israel relations, and 1million plus Palestinians into focus, and may well decide the final outcome of this war. This is the strategic setting that Hamas has chosen for its last stand. In this fight against sophisticated state sponsored terrorism, the gamble Israel has to take is an unenviable one but one it must plan for diligently, in order to destroy Hamas so that there can in fact be a ‘day after’ from which to build a better future for Israelis, Palestinians in Gaza, and for durable, peaceful relations across the wider region.

About the Author
Aaron Cohen-Gold is the Deputy Director of ELNET UK, which works to improve and expand UK-Israel-Europe relations. He previously worked as a Political Affairs consultant for the MHP Group (a leading UK communications agency), as Government Affairs Manager at the University of Cambridge, and for three Members of Parliament. He is also serving terms on the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps & Board of Deputies of British Jews.
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