Opinion | Israel’s Security Depends on Rafah

By Equipo
9 Min Read

Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu is right — “unfortunately,” I say, because he is the most incompetent, corrupt and divisive Israeli prime minister ever, as many in Israel believe. But he is right that it’s crucial for Israel to conquer Rafah and destroy the Hamas battalions ensconced in that city at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, protected by a human shield of some 1.4 million residents and refugees from the north.

If this does not happen, Hamas will survive to fight and murder and rape another day — and its leader, Yahya Sinwar, will emerge from his hiding place declaring victory. And he will be right. For Palestinian-Israeli peace to have any chance, for regional stability and for the future welfare of Israel and Israelis, especially those living in the south of the country, Hamas must be obliterated.

Whether Israel will actually attack Rafah or whether it could carry out such an assault to what it considers a successful conclusion is still up in the air. This week, the Biden administration strongly cautioned against a full-scale invasion of Rafah, saying it could be enormously harmful to civilians and ultimately hurt Israel’s security. Mr. Netanyahu said on Monday that a date for an invasion had been set, although he didn’t specify what it was.

Of course, there are formidable reasons for Israel to refrain from invading Rafah. First, above all, is that human shield. Assaulting Rafah will inevitably cause many civilian casualties, despite assurances by Israel that it will move the civilians out of harm’s way before launching the offensive. The civilian toll in the prospective Rafah assault will come on top of the estimated 33,000 dead cited by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry (which number includes the more than 12,000 Hamas fighters the Israeli military claims to have killed these past six months). Many of those were killed in ground offensives in Gaza City and Khan Younis to the north.

The additional civilian casualties and the attendant further disruption of humanitarian aid through the Egypt-Gaza border will ratchet up condemnation of Israel’s conduct by its Western allies, led by the United States. The threat of international sanctions is already on the table.

Second, for months Egypt has been telling Israel to stay out of Rafah. Cairo fears that an Israeli assault will spill over into the Sinai Peninsula and result in Palestinians pouring into Egypt. That could engender both a fresh humanitarian crisis and a political challenge, given Hamas’s kinship with Egypt’s powerful, though now banned, Muslim Brotherhood movement. Egypt has hinted that such an Israeli campaign could even subvert the 45-year-old Israel-Egypt peace treaty, seen by the Israeli government as a foundation stone of its national security.

Moreover, any campaign in Rafah, like the Israeli military’s previous war-making in Khan Younis, is bound to be protracted, given the expansive Hamas tunnel system under its streets and the care the Israeli forces will most likely take because of the possible presence in the tunnels of Israeli hostages from the Oct. 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel.

Which brings us to Israeli public opinion. The start of a Rafah offensive may in itself delay by months, if not years, a deal with Hamas to get some or all of the hostages back.

The recent mass demonstrations on Israel’s streets calling alternatively for such a deal or for Mr. Netanyahu’s ouster might turn violent and anarchic. And the prospective assault on Rafah could require calling up a large number of Israeli reservists who were only recently released from service in Gaza, along the border with Lebanon or in the West Bank. Indeed, the confluence of these two issues — the hostages and additional, burdensome reserve service — might halt the offensive in mid-stride and precipitate a crisis in the government coalition.

Lastly, the prospective offensive — with its promise of the final destruction of Hamas — might even set off a full-scale war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which until now has restricted itself to harrying Israel’s northern border communities and military positions. And an Israel-Hezbollah war could herald an even wider regional conflict, including a direct Israel-Iran clash, which the Biden administration has been at pains to avert since Oct. 7, lest the United States too be sucked into the maelstrom.

Yet, despite these powerful reasons to stand down, Israel must take Rafah if it wants to demolish Hamas as a military and governing organization. And for Israel, that potential outcome outweighs the many risks.

If Hamas emerges from this war in control of Rafah, where thousands of its fighters are believed to remain, and the southern quarter of Gaza, it could gradually rearm through the tunnels connecting the Strip and Sinai, and soon project its power northward to encompass most or all of the Strip, many analysts believe.

Above all, an Israeli failure to take Rafah and smash Hamas’s last organized military formations and its governing structures will paint Israel, in its enemies’ eyes, as a weak, defeated polity, easy prey for the next potential assailant. Paradoxically, the spectacle of Israeli weakness — as much as a Rafah offensive — could tempt Hezbollah to gamble on a full-scale war.

Any possibility of foreign troops (Emirati or Saudi) or Palestinian Authority/Fatah police replacing the Israelis in the bulk of the Gaza Strip will disappear, given the likelihood that those troops would be denounced and attacked by Hamas as Israel’s agents.

Down the road, a resurrected Hamas will again threaten, and probably attack, southern Israel’s border communities. Most of the residents of those communities have been internal exiles since Oct. 7 alongside the 70,000 or so inhabitants of northern Israel’s border communities displaced by Hezbollah rockets since the war began.

The Oct. 7 Hamas incursion has raised a big question mark over Zionism itself. Zionism came into this world some 140 years ago to end the 2,000 years of Jewish humiliation and oppression at gentile hands and to provide the Jews, at last, with a haven.

To now allow the badly mauled Hamas to emerge victorious will underline Zionism’s crucial failure. And critics in the Arab and Muslim world of making peace with Israel — Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco have done so — may well be emboldened to reject such ties.

A hundred or so years of conflict with Arab nations and of terrorism, culminating in the Hamas brutality of Oct. 7, have demonstrated that Israel, certainly for the moment, can be considered the least safe place on earth for Jews. Invading Rafah is vital to eliminating Hamas and restoring that safety. You don’t have to like Benjamin Netanyahu to see that.

Benny Morris is a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University and the author of “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.”

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