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7 May 2024

The assault on Rafah has begun

Hours after Hamas announced it had accepted a ceasefire proposal, Israel took control of the border crossing.

By Bruno Maçães

Monday 6 May was an extraordinary day in the Middle East, even by the region’s recent standards. The morning started with Israel dropping evacuation notices over Rafah, warning of an imminent invasion and telling civilians to leave the area. Terror immediately swept the town and its surrounding refugee camps due to the flying leaflets.

Desperate Palestinians used their social media accounts to plead for advice on what to do. Some families left Rafah, forming the same evacuation lines we have seen throughout this war, but now forced to leave the wounded behind and carrying no more than their small children on their shoulders. There were images of horse carts being pulled by teenage boys; the horses and donkeys died long ago. Al-Mawasi, to where they were instructed to head, is a desolate, tiny strip by the ocean, where food or aid are unlikely to reach. 

By the afternoon, word arrived from Hamas that the group had agreed to a ceasefire proposal put forward by Egypt and Qatar. There were jubilant celebrations in the streets of Rafah; many Western observers felt an immediate sense of dread that those celebrating might soon have their hopes crushed. Within minutes after the announcement, Israeli authorities were leaking to the media that the deal Hamas agreed to was not acceptable to Israel. It was not just Palestinians in Rafah who were left to despair; the families of hostages still held by Hamas must have imagined their torment was finally coming to an end. There was some surprise from journalists online: it is uncommon for a terror group to appear as the constructive side in a negotiation.

The same obstacles to peace remain: Israel will not accept anything but a strictly temporary ceasefire. Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers want a deal freeing the hostages but then they intend to continue the war after a short period. The goal is total victory, and that for the Israeli government means the destruction of Hamas. It wants a deal that does not preclude that destruction in the near future.

Again, the obstacles remain the same: why would Hamas agree to that? Many diplomats in Western capitals are convinced the group has no choices left and might prefer to have a period of respite. The strategy has been to convince Egypt and Qatar to use their own leverage over Hamas, to remove even the promise of support and protection if they refuse a deal. But these are tenuous premises.

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According to a Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations, there was only one difference between the deal agreed to by Hamas yesterday and the terms proposed by Israel a few days earlier, terms the US secretary of state Antony Blinken described as extremely generous. The difference is this: while Israel agreed to include a reference to a period of “sustainable calm”, it wants that period to expire after the deal is implemented; Hamas wants the “sustainable calm” to continue after the implementation period.

Sustainable calm is a weakened version of ceasefire. The Western diplomat with whom I discussed yesterday’s events initially thought Israel might be convinced to agree to the deal. After all, it would always be possible to find a reason to break the “calm”, perhaps arguing that it had become unsustainable. But even the weakened formula turned out to be unacceptable to Netanyahu and his ministers. The temporary ceasefire has to be about the hostages and it has to be interpreted inside Israel as an unequivocal defeat for Hamas. Anything short of that might be deeply unpopular and even bring down the government. Government ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir have promised as much. On the other hand, by formally announcing it is ready to release the hostages, Hamas has increased the pressure over Netanyahu. Will the protests and pressure to bring the hostages home grow in numbers and power? We will soon know.

By Monday evening, Israeli warplanes were carrying out fire belts on several neighbourhoods across eastern Rafah, preparing a ground invasion that did in fact take place in the early hours. Scores of wounded and dead started to arrive at the improvised medical facilities that still survive in Rafah. Israeli military vehicles arrived at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, seizing control of the area. Egyptian television showed images from the Egyptian side where gunfire was clearly audible. The first phase of the dreaded Rafah assault had started and it immediately endangered the continuation of the aid flows entering Gaza through the crossing. Joe Biden has always insisted he is firmly against Rafah, a shorthand for the invasion. Well, was this Rafah?

As Israeli tanks fired several shells at the crossing, one extreme scenario often discussed in recent weeks came to mind: might one of those shells breach the border wall and would crowds of desperate Palestinians try to cross into Egypt? For weeks the Egyptian authorities have warned Israel that such a scenario could well entail an end to the peace treaty between the two countries. It is possible Israel will try to create a buffer zone between the border and the rest of Gaza. Although many in the government, including Netanyahu, have spoken of the possibility of a mass expulsion from Gaza, they stress this would happen by sea and that Palestinians would leave for Europe. Israel should have no interest in moving Hamas militants just across the border to the Sinai, but of course very few can vouch for the rationality of either Netanyahu or his extremist ministers Smotrich and Ben Gvir. 

What next? The Rafah assault will likely continue but in the same halting manner that the whole war has been conducted so far – without much strategy or thought. There may be new efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement, but those efforts seem predicated on some sort of deception: either misleading Hamas into believing a ceasefire is not temporary or misleading Israel into believing the opposite. Deception is never a good basis for diplomacy and any agreement reached in this manner is doomed to unravel, no matter how much Biden wants Gaza to disappear from the news before the US’s November election.  

What the Rafah invasion will certainly bring is more suffering for the people in Gaza. This time around there is nowhere to go. The Israeli government has decided its international image is less vital than all its other priorities and, therefore, this is the area where it feels more willing to take a hit.

This may turn out to be an error of historical proportions. Already on Monday the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement no one could have imagined just a few days earlier. It called for the “international community to intervene immediately to stop the genocide carried out by the occupation forces against defenceless civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories”. It was the kind of incendiary language Saudi Arabia has typically jailed its own citizens for using. That too was extraordinary.

[See also: The dark reality of Netanyahu’s postwar vision]

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