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14 February 2024

Israel is pushing Palestinians to the edge

With its military focusing on Rafah, Netanyahu’s government has spoken of large numbers of Palestinians being forced to leave the Gaza Strip.

By Bruno Maçães

On 9 February the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military to prepare a plan to evacuate civilians from the city of Rafah in southern Gaza ahead of a ground offensive. Directly on the border with Egypt, Rafah has received successive waves of Palestinian civilians escaping the complete destruction in Gaza City in the north and the intense bombings and ground attacks in and around Khan Yunis in the south. Perhaps as many as 1.5 million people are now in Rafah, many of them living in improvised tents.

In his phone call with Netanyahu on 11 February, the US president Joe Biden reportedly asked the Israeli prime minister not to send Israel Defense Forces troops into Rafah “without a credible and executable plan” for civilians, in what seemed like a green light for the operation. After all, Netanyahu had already promised a plan. Later that night, as more than 100 million Americans watched the Super Bowl, Israel hit Rafah with its most intense bombings so far. As missiles fell on the city, Biden’s team tweeted a “Dark Brandon” meme, a playful reference to the conspiracy theory that the president had a hand in the victory of the Kansas City Chiefs, whose star player happens to be dating the pop star Taylor Swift. A baby girl not older than a month, a child of the Gaza war, was among those killed by Israel’s strikes in Rafah. No evacuation plan had been organised.

Israel will launch the promised ground offensive in the coming days or weeks, a move that even stalwart supporters such as Germany and Britain have warned could have catastrophic consequences. The war has reached the critical moment many feared since the conflict began. As Israeli forces moved gradually southwards in Gaza, and Palestinian civilians followed orders to evacuate different sections of the Strip, the moment was destined to arrive when there was nowhere left to flee to and much of the population of Gaza was pushed against the concrete wall on the southern border with Egypt, which is also the only way in for food and humanitarian aid. Egypt has warned that an Israeli offensive on Rafah could put an end to the peace agreement between the two states.

Sources inside the Egyptian military have leaked to several media outlets that Egypt has decided to use force to prevent Israel from storming Rafah and reaching the Philadelphi corridor, the Israeli name for the narrow strip of land along the border between Gaza and Egypt. In 2008 the border was breached after Hamas militants set off a series of explosions, and as many as half a million Palestinians crossed into Egypt amid a severe humanitarian crisis caused by the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

That scenario could repeat itself, throwing Egypt and the regime of its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, into a crisis with unforeseeable consequences. Protests on Egyptian streets have been relatively quiet, but would that remain the case if Rafah were suddenly littered with bodies, while the survivors pressed themselves against the border wall? If the border was breached again, Hamas militants could even be in a position to take control of the Sinai peninsula; Egypt has struggled to contain armed insurgencies there in the past.

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Under normal circumstances, the mere threat of Cairo sending its tanks to meet the Israeli troops north of Rafah would have alarmed Washington, and the bluff would have at least forced Israel to reconsider a ground offensive. These are not normal circumstances. The way the Biden administration has extended full support to the Netanyahu government has been profoundly destabilising because it allows Israel to act seemingly with complete abandon, certain that the US would intervene only to stop, say, a Hezbollah attack in the north, or a confrontation with Egypt, or a spiralling conflict in the wider region involving Iran. It is difficult to imagine that Israel could act with such indifference to the consequences of its own actions if it did not have the best insurance policy in the world.

When asked by Western and Israeli media about the missing evacuation plan, Israeli authorities claim that Palestinians will be able to evacuate to al-Mawasi, a southern, coastal sliver of land of about 16 square kilometres – the size of a large airport. It’s enough space for five or six square metres for every Palestinian. Al-Mawasi has no infrastructure: it is a desert plot that, since the war began, has been used as a garbage dump. If past examples are any indication, Israeli forces are likely to issue an evacuation order about two hours before the ground invasion starts. All humanitarian aid entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing will immediately cease. Then, 1.5 million people will march the four kilometres to al-Mawasi where their new home awaits.

On Sunday 11 February, Israeli forces rescued two hostages held by Hamas in Rafah. Netanyahu will feel that entering the city is the only way to show Israeli citizens that he has tried everything he can to rescue the remaining hostages, who likely number around 100, and kill Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, who is probably hiding somewhere in the area. Many in the Israeli cabinet, including Netanyahu, have favourably spoken of a scenario in which a large percentage of Palestinians would be forced to leave the Strip. Gaza City, the largest Palestinian city in the world, is already a pile of rubble.

The Palestinian national project will take a long time to recover from the war and the temptation among many in Israel is to give it a death blow. Many in Rafah say they will never leave, for al-Mawasi or anywhere else. “If death is inevitable, then we die in our tents and die on our land,” we hear over and over again in recorded videos. Catastrophe awaits.

[See also: Time is running out in Gaza]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland