Watch | Israel’s Rafah invasion | Explained

Watch | Israel’s Rafah invasion | Explained

Rafah, the southernmost city of the Gaza strip, has turned into a ‘gigantic refugee camp’

Updated - May 18, 2024 07:34 pm IST

Published - May 18, 2024 05:55 pm IST

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, as many as 1.5 million people are living in Rafah. Many of them are camped on the streets and beaches, while others are cramped into filthy, overcrowded makeshift shelters.

Rafah is now a “gigantic refugee camp”, says the Norwegian Refugee Council. According to a doctor who served in Rafah, the city is a “closed jail”. 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 “is now hungry and people have just 1.5 to 2 litres of unsafe water per day to meet all their needs”. A majority of Gaza’s population is now jammed in Rafah. It is in this Rafah, Israel is carrying out its latest offensive.

Rafah has always been a flashpoint in the Israel-Palestine conflict, given its territorial proximity to Egypt. After the 1948 Arab-Israel war, 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 Israel 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 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, 2023, Israel ordered over 1 million Palestinians living in the 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 flight of refugees towards the south. Today, the lion’s share of Rafah’s population are internally displaced Palestinians.

Before Israel launched the Rafah offensive, there were dramatic developments. The U.S. had 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’s captivity, though many of them are feared dead. There are growing protests in Israel, asking the government to strike a deal with Hamas to bring the hostages back. Israel and Hamas, helped by mediators such as the U.S., Egypt and Qatar, had held multiple rounds of talks in Cairo for a ceasefire deal.

While the fine details of the ceasefire proposal were not made public yet, reports in Egyptian and Saudi media suggested that the mediators had 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 was 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 proposals were the most contentious. Israel wanted Hamas to release the bodies of all hostages and Hamas wanted a comprehensive, lasting ceasefire and full withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel says no to both Hamas demands. Israeli 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. If the Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza, Israeli officials say, Palestinians as well as Hamas militants would return to the areas close to the Israeli border. And if Israel agrees to a lasting ceasefire, the remaining Hamas battalions 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 Israel agrees for a ceasefire, Hamas would survive. This is the dilemma Mr. Netanyahu is facing.

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”. But on May 6, Hamas’s Doha-based leader Ismail Haniyeh said the group accepted the ceasefire proposal suggested by the mediators in Cairo. The Hamas announcement came hours after the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) ordered at least 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from Rafah. Mr. Netanyahu’s government immediately rejected the Hamas offer, saying it did not meet Israel’s core demands. The Prime Minister later said Israel would never agree to end the war in Gaza as part of a deal with Hamas.

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. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that any attack on the overcrowded Rafah would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. If he abandons the plan to attack Rafah and cuts a deal with Hamas for hostages, Netanyahu’s 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 to invade Rafah, more Palestinian civilians would be killed, Israel would further be isolated globally and tensions would rise in ties with the U.S. But Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t 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.

Read more:Israel’s ‘limited’ military operation in Rafah | Explained

Script and presentation: Stanly Johny

Video: Thamodharan B.

Production: Ravichandran N.

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