Israel’s vow to intensify Rafah operation strains support at home, abroad

Israel’s vow to intensify Rafah operation strains support at home, abroad

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government is pushing forward on intensifying military operations against Hamas in Rafah, despite increasing international isolation, deepening tensions with President Biden and pressure from Israeli society critical of efforts to free hostages held in Gaza.

Israel describes the southern Gazan city of Rafah as the stronghold of the last pieces of Hamas’s conventional army, and it sees the border area with Egypt as a loose sieve where weapons and supplies flow freely to Hamas.

Biden has said he has a red line against an Israeli military operation in Rafah that causes wide-scale destruction and death for Palestinian civilians. But the administration, so far, has not described growing Israeli military operations in the southern Gaza Strip as crossing the threshold of wide-scale warfare.

The Israeli military has increased the number of troops present in and around Rafah over two weeks since the start of operations in earnest, said Seth Frantzman, an Israel-based adjunct fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies based in Washington.

“They’re basically moving along this very narrow area of land that is along the Gaza-Egypt border, which is about 8 miles of border, and I think they’ve taken about 50 percent of it,” he said.

“They’re operating in a narrow strip. I think that is intentional, so that they don’t have to enter the really built-up, more densely populated areas.”

But the vast majority of the international community and humanitarian groups are raising alarm that Israel’s ongoing military operations are putting at risk nearly 1 million Palestinians, displaced multiple times, and that humanitarian assistance deliveries have yet to scale up enough to meet the needs of the people.

“The claim that people in Gaza can move to ‘safe’ or ‘humanitarian’ zones is false. Each time, it puts the lives of civilians at serious risk,” Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general for the legacy agency that provides relief for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, posted on the social platform X.

He warned that 800,000 Palestinians have been forced to flee, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

“Gaza does not have any safe zones. No place is safe. No one is safe,” he said.

And the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a ruling Friday for Israel to halt its military operations in Rafah amid concern of acts of genocide occurring against the Palestinians.

The ICJ does not have an enforcement mechanism, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has earlier rejected international pressure to pull back on his country’s military operations.

“No amount of pressure and no decision in any international forum will prevent Israel from defending itself against those who seek our destruction,” the prime minister said last week.

The statement came in response to an announcement by the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court earlier this week that he is seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant over allegations of starvation as a war crime.

And earlier this week, Ireland, Norway and Spain made the move to recognize a Palestinian state, a move that was criticized by Israeli officials but welcomed by advocates for Palestinians as elevating their human rights.

“The recognitions … contribute positively to all international efforts towards ending the Israeli illegal occupation and achieving peace and stability in the region,” the ministry of foreign affairs for the Palestinian Authority said in a statement.

But Netanyahu and his supporters say those actions reward Hamas for carrying out the most devastating attack against the Jewish people since the Holocaust. More than 1,100 people were killed in the Oct. 7 invasion, and 250 people were taken hostage.

A weeklong cease-fire at the end of November brokered by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar succeeded in securing the release of more than 100 hostages held by Hamas, relieving the fighting for Palestinians in Gaza and scaling up humanitarian aid deliveries.

But international mediators have failed to reach another deal to secure the release of hostages.

The Israeli military said Friday that it rescued the bodies of three hostages from an undisclosed location in Gaza — bringing the known number of hostages to about 125, with about 36 believed dead.

On Thursday, the Hostage Families Forum released a video of the violent abduction by Hamas of seven young Israeli women serving as observers at an Israeli military base in southern Israel. The video was released as part of a pressure campaign on the Israeli government and the international community to do more to secure their release.

But Netanyahu has vowed that military pressure is the only way to get Hamas to release the hostages.

“We’re committed to get the other half [of the hostages] as well. That’s by applying military pressure and when he [Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar] senses that the pressure is too heavy, he releases hostages,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Dan Senor on the podcast “Call Me Back.”

Israeli officials have not given a timeline for how long they expect an operation in Rafah to last. Israel has delayed the start of the operation for weeks amid concerns from the Biden administration about the civilian death toll in the region. Israel’s offensives in Gaza have killed more than 35,500 Palestinians in the past seven months, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

“What we’re going to be looking at is whether there is a lot of death and destruction from this operation or if it is more precise and proportional. And we will see that unfold,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday, following meetings with Israeli officials in Jerusalem last week.

Most Israelis are supportive of Israel’s ongoing military operations, but fatigue is setting in amid deep divisions over the military death toll — more than 600 soldiers killed in action — concern over efforts to release hostages who may still be alive; rising tensions with the U.S. and international isolation.

“The public is becoming frustrated with the war effort,” said Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute who has conducted regular polling of the Israeli public before and after Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7.

“We Israelis, by and large, support the war. We, by and large, still understand that winning the war is essential for Israel. But after eight months, as you would expect, there is growing fatigue, frustration and political infighting.”

While Netanyahu is in a relatively strong position at the head of government — unlikely to be forced into early elections — he is facing increased public opposition from members in his own party, coalition lawmakers and greater attacks from the left-wing opposition.

Gallant has called for Netanyahu to deliver a public plan for Gaza absent Hamas control of the strip’s Palestinian population. And Benny Gantz, a member of the wartime Cabinet, has given a June 8 deadline when he will exit the coalition if Netanyahu fails to lay out a postwar strategy.

A potential exit by Gantz is unlikely to immediately trigger elections in Israel. A handful of members of Netanyahu’s 64-member coalition would have to defect. There are frustrations across the spectrum, with far-right and center-right members of the coalition upset that Netanyahu delayed military operations in Rafah because of international pressure.

“I think it took way too long,” said Dan Illouz, a member of Knesset who is part of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

“I think that the idea was that if there was an understanding with the Americans and the diplomatic price have to pay for the Rafah operation … they wanted to come to some sort of an agreement for the diplomatic costs to be lower. … I think what happened was the diplomatic cost was much higher.”

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