Rafah | Opening the gates of hell

Despite international warnings and pleas, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, seems determined to invade the southern Gaza city where 1.5 million Palestinians, most of them refugees, are living in filthy overcrowded shelters, streets and beaches

Updated - May 12, 2024 08:51 am IST

Published - May 12, 2024 01:43 am IST

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah in Gaza on May 10, 2024.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah in Gaza on May 10, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

The pre-war population of Rafah, the southernmost city of the Gaza strip sharing a border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, was 1,70,000. Today, seven months after Israel launched its war on Gaza, following Hamas’s October 7, 2023 crossborder attack in which at least 1,200 people were killed, as many as 1.5 million people are living in Rafah. Many of them are camping on the streets and beaches, while others are packed into filthy, overcrowded makeshift shelters. Rafah is now a “gigantic refugee camp”, Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in February. According to a doctor who served in Rafah, the city is a “closed jail” with faecal matter running through streets so crowded that there is barely space for medics’ vehicles to pass, Reuters reported. Medics are struggling to supply even basic aid and prevent the outbreak and spread of diseases. According to Action Aid, every single person in Gaza, a majority of whose population is now jammed in Rafah, “is hungry and people have just 1.5 to 2 litres of unsafe water per day to meet all their needs”.

Israel wants to launch a full-scale invasion on this Rafah.

Rafah has always been a flashpoint in the Israel-Palestine conflict, given its territorial proximity to Egypt. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, triggered by the declaration of the state of Israel in historical Palestine, Rafah came under Egyptian rule along with other parts of the Gaza Strip. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, who were displaced from their homes when the Jewish state was created, were settled in Gaza. During the Suez Crisis, Rafah came under attack when the Israeli troops were marching towards Sinai through Gaza. On November 12, 1956, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) raided a refugee camp in Rafah, killing at least 111 Palestinians, which came to be known as the ‘Rafah massacre’.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, the entire Gaza, including Rafah, came under Israel’s direct military occupation. Israel would retain its direct control over the enclave until 2005. After the latest war began on October 7, Israel ordered over 1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza to evacuate. Most of them fled their homes and moved to southern cities such as Khan Younis and Rafah. When Khan Younis was attacked, there was another exodus of refugees towards the south. Today, the lion’s share of Rafah’s population are internally displaced Palestinians.

War and talks

The past week saw dramatic developments in the Gaza war. The U.S.clearly warned Israel against launching a full-scale invasion of Rafah, arguing that such an attack would kill more Palestinian civilians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel would go ahead with the plan to invade Rafah, defying international pressure, warnings and pleas. But Mr. Netanyahu is also under pressure to bring the remaining hostages back.

Israel says 128 hostages abducted on October 7 are still in Hamas captivity, though many of them are feared dead. There are growing protests in Israel, asking the government to strike deal with Hamas to bring the hostages back. Israel and Hamas, helped by mediators such as the U.S., Egypt and Qatar have held multiple rounds of talks in Cairo for a ceasefire deal.

While the finer details of the ceasefire proposal are yet to be made public, reports in Egyptian and Saudi media suggest that the mediators have proposed a three-phase deal that would see the release of all hostages and Palestinian prisoners and eventually bring the war to an end. In the first phase, Israel is expected to cease fire for 40 days and free Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of 33 hostages. In the second phase, the ceasefire would be extended by 42 more days, while all the remaining living hostages would be released. The third phase of the proposals are the most contentious, according to Arab media. Israel wants Hamas to release the bodies of all hostages and Hamas wants a comprehensive, lasting ceasefire and full IDF withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel says no to both Hamas demands. IDF troops have been deployed in northern and central Gaza, effectively carving the northern tip of the strip as a buffer zone between Israel proper and Gaza’s population (who have been pushed to the south). If Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza, Israeli officials say, Palestinians as well as Hamas militants would return to areas close to the border. And if Israel agrees to a lasting ceasefire, the remaining Hamas battalions (Israeli officials say four Hamas brigades are present in Rafah) would survive.

When Israel launched the war on October 7, it made its twin objectives public: dismantle Hamas and release the hostages. Seven months after the war, in which roughly 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, Israel has not met either of the objectives. One practical solution to the hostage crisis is to strike a deal with Hamas. But Hamas would release the hostages only in return for a ceasefire. And if Mr. Netanyahu agrees to a ceasefire, Hamas would survive. This is the dilemma the Israel faces.

Earlier, Biden administration officials had said Hamas was the major stumbling block for a ceasefire. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 4 that “the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas”. Two days later, however, Hamas’s Doha-based leader Ismail Haniyeh said the group had accepted the ceasefire proposal suggested by the mediators in Cairo.

The Hamas announcement came hours after the IDF ordered at least 1,00,000 people to evacuate from Rafah. Mr. Netanyahu’s government immediately rejected the Hamas offer, saying it did not meet Israel’s core demands. He later said Israel would never agree to end the war in Gaza as part of a deal with Hamas. In other words, the Israelis seemed determined to go ahead with the Rafah attack plan.

Tensions with U.S.

Mr. Netanyahu’s tough line on Rafah has created tensions in Israel’s ties with the U.S. Earlier, President Biden had said a full-scale attack on Rafah without a proper plan to protect civilians would be a redline for him. Last week, he announced that the U.S. would not supply offensive weapons to Israel if it goes ahead with the attack plan. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that any attack on the overcrowded Rafah would lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

If Mr. Netanyahu abandons the plan to attack Rafah and cuts a deal with Hamas for hostages, his government could fall as his far-right allies such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have already warned against such a move. If he goes ahead with the plan, more Palestinian civilians would be killed, Israel would further be isolated globally and tensions would rise with the U.S. But Mr. Netanyahu does not seem to bother. “If Israel has to stand alone, it will stand alone,” he said on May 10, less than a month after American, British, French and Jordanian defence systems, along with the IDF, shot down most of the drones and cruise and ballistic missiles launched by Iran towards Israel.

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