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The Rafah conundrum: Crafting an effective strategy to crush Hamas

Israel needs to consider Egyptian and US concerns without giving up the mission to free hostages and disable Hamas
A Palestinian family breaks their fast amidst the rubble of their home, which was destroyed by an Israeli strike, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Rafah on March 23, 2024. (Said Khatib / AFP)
A Palestinian family breaks their fast amidst the rubble of their home, which was destroyed by an Israeli strike, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Rafah on March 23, 2024. (Said Khatib / AFP)

Israel is under heavy pressure in the regional and international arenas, led by the US, to refrain from launching an extensive ground operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. On the other hand, Israel has several important military objectives in the Rafah area and, for several reasons, cannot exclude it from the campaign in the Gaza Strip.

First, the goal of dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities requires targeting the four battalions of its Rafah Brigade, which are still intact. 

Far more important is the need to cut off the smuggling routes from the Sinai, aboveground and primarily underground, along the Egypt-Gaza border (the “Philadelphi” route). This smuggling activity has enabled Hamas to amass an enormous quantity of weaponry, which the citizens of Israel and IDF forces have encountered in the war. Without thoroughly addressing this issue, the smuggling tunnels will enable Hamas to reap profits, receive assistance from its supporters in the Muslim world, and ultimately restore its military capacity and resume its military buildup. 

Finally, Hamas commanders, and apparently some of its leaders, are hiding among the population in Rafah and in the tunnels below the city, and Israeli hostages are being held there. 

Israel must meticulously strategize its actions and exercise prudence to accomplish its objectives in Rafah, all the while averting a potential crisis with Washington and Cairo that could jeopardize broader war efforts in Gaza and tarnish our international standing.

If we manage the campaign in Rafah in light of an overall  “day after” strategy in which Israel would not replace Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza, we could achieve our objectives in Rafah with the assistance of Washington and Cairo and avoid a serious confrontation with them. 

A meeting set by President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu and later canceled after the US declined to veto a UN ceasefire resolution, was to have dispatched an Israeli delegation to Washington for joint talks on Rafah. According to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the purpose was to allow the US “to lay out an alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements in Rafah and secure the Egypt-Gaza border, without a major ground invasion.” 

In recent weeks, President Biden and his administration – who unequivocally affirm the need to defeat Hamas – have frequently voiced apprehension regarding a potential operation in Rafah and the ensuing chaos it could unleash in Gaza. They have cautioned Israel against initiating such an operation before ensuring the safe evacuation of civilians and have urged for a targeted approach instead.”

The prospect of a major ground operation in Rafah stirs significant opposition not only from the US, but from the West in general and from Arab states. The presence of 1.4 million civilians in Rafah (including about a million displaced people who took refuge there during the war) raises serious concerns in the region and in the world that an Israeli offensive in Rafah would exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza and inflict tremendous harm on non-involved civilians in the urban areas where Hamas’s battalions have dug in, using those civilians as human shields. Furthermore, Egypt views the possibility of civilians from Rafah streaming into the Sinai in the wake of a major military operation as a serious threat to its national security. Qatar, too, is warning against an operation in Rafah that would sow destruction and lead to “atrocities.” 

On the other hand, the threat of an extensive operation in Rafah serves as leverage vis-à-vis Hamas in the context of a hostage deal. The IDF should take advantage of the Ramadan period to start to evacuate civilians and amass forces along the outskirts of Rafah because as long as hostages remain in Gaza, the Israeli leadership, political and military, will be hard put to refrain from carrying out a ground mission in Rafah in the absence of other effective leverage on Hamas. 

The decision on the nature and scope of the operation in Rafah is not a stand-alone question; it should derive from Israel’s overall plans for “the day after” the war in Gaza, to the extent that such plans exist. 

If Israel wishes to assume responsibility for the complete demilitarization of the Gaza Strip (which will take years) – as the prime minister made clear in his “plan” – and to control its borders to ensure that Hamas does not rebuild its power, then an extensive ground operation aimed at conquering Rafah and establishing a long-term IDF deployment there might be a relevant move. 

It should be noted that such an endeavor would also burden Israel with overall responsibility for Gaza in all other aspects, including humanitarian and civilian matters, in a way that would undercut the possibility of mobilizing regional and international assistance to address the Gaza challenge.

It should also be emphasized that complete Israeli control in Rafah does not guarantee the success of blocking the smuggling tunnels and effectively monitoring the Rafah crossing (and the adjacent Saladin Gate). These objectives depend, in part, on effective action by Egyptian forces on the other side of the border, who rake in profits from the smuggling and conduct a policy of calibrating pressures vis-à-vis Gaza. We should also recall that during the many years in which the IDF controlled Rafah, prior to the Disengagement in 2005, Israel did not succeed in sealing the border hermetically. 

On the other hand, if the alternative for “the day after” is to build a Palestinian governing alternative to Hamas in parallel to degrading its military infrastructure (as the defense minister, IDF and Shin Bet recommend) so that IDF forces will not need to return each time anew to Gaza neighborhoods that were already cleared (and even to sites like the Shifa Hospital) – then the plan of action in Rafah must also be designed accordingly. In any case, it will be imperative to destroy tunnels and strike a severe blow to the remaining Hamas battalions. These battalions are not among the organization’s most stalwart forces, prompting suggestions that Israel, or even Egypt, issue an ultimatum demanding their surrender before initiating an operation. 

Subsequently, Israel would pursue the mission of preventing Hamas’s rearmament and controlling the border in close collaboration with the US and Egypt, while gradually establishing local Palestinian forces tied to the “revitalized” Palestinian Authority. A commitment from Israel to refrain from a long occupation of Rafah and to coordinate steps to ensure an orderly evacuation and suitable humanitarian response for the civilians in Rafah (and in the Gaza Strip in general) would help to mobilize the Egyptians and Americans behind an effective policy to block the smuggling routes and tunnels from Sinai, combining operational and engineering efforts on both sides of the border (such as a barrier against tunnels). 

In the immediate term, Israel has a vital interest in agreeing to a hostage deal and in implementing its initial phase, without the need to launch a broad operation in Rafah. Israel will retain this option if difficulties arise in implementing the next, more complicated stages of the deal. Additionally, the return of some of the civilians from Rafah to the northern Gaza Strip, as demanded by Hamas within the framework of the initial stage of a hostage agreement, would actually help set the stage for a future operation in Rafah, whenever decided upon, by evacuating displaced persons from the area. 

Ultimately, Israel has a crucial stake in addressing the Rafah issue, especially the challenge presented by smuggling routes from Sinai, by closely coordinating and collaborating with Egypt and the US. Opting to assume full responsibility for demilitarizing the Gaza Strip and preventing Hamas’s rearmament would only entangle Israel further in Gaza, with no guarantee of success. This approach would impose significant military and economic burdens and could risk a serious diplomatic crisis with Washington and Cairo, further undermining Israel’s international and regional standing.

This article was co-authored by Col. (Ret.) Udi Evental, an expert on strategy and policy planning, MIND Israel.

About the Author
Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, is the president of MIND Israel.