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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Condemnation Slows, but Does Not Stall, Israel’s Assault on Rafah - The New York Times

Condemnation Slows, but Does Not Stall, Israel’s Assault on Rafah

"Despite fierce criticism, Israel insists it must take control of Rafah and the border with Egypt to prevent future arms smuggling.

Two people can be seen wearing black and walking along an otherwise deserted road.
A camp, once overwhelmed by displaced people from around Gaza and now mostly deserted, on Wednesday in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.Eyad Al-Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Despite an international court order to stop its assault on Rafah, Israel says it will continue its operation, trying to walk a line between not angering its American allies too much while trying to achieve strategic aims that it considers too important to abandon.

For now, after many weeks of admonitions from the White House, both the Israelis and the Americans are characterizing this as a “limited operation,” allowing the Israelis to proceed, though more slowly and cautiously than they had in other parts of Gaza.

But as the fighting pushes masses of panicked civilians toward areas near the sea with inadequate housing or medical aid, and the closing of the Rafah border crossing dims hope for speedy delivery of humanitarian aid, Israel’s critics abroad condemn the toll on civilians and are unconvinced by what the Israelis have called restraint.

On Friday, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to immediately halt its offensive in Rafah, saying it endangered the civilian population there, but did not call for a complete cease-fire. Israel says it will not halt its military operation.

For Israel, taking Rafah and the border would effectively complete the reconquest of Gaza and could mean a move to a different phase of lower-intensity raids. Rafah has in and under it the last four relatively organized Hamas battalions, a major tunnel infrastructure and rocket launchers, the Israelis say. More important, Israel wants to try to seal the border with Egypt to reduce the smuggling of weapons for the future.

“The airstrikes are continuous and intense, and the smell of smoke doesn’t leave the air,” said Mohammad al-Masri, 31, an accountant who has been sheltering in a tent in Rafah for months. “At night, they advance a few meters at a time, and the people flee immediately.”

Representatives for Israel, right, attending a hearing on Friday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as part of South Africa’s request for a cease-fire in Gaza.Koen Van Weel/ANP, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He spoke from western Rafah, where residents and other Gazans who took refuge there have not yet been ordered by the Israeli military to leave. Even so, all around him many of the tents that had been sheltering families for months are gone as people have fled elsewhere. “They shoot and bomb us constantly,” he said, “but what scares us the most are the drones.”

Israel’s military aims remain unaltered, however. It wants to secure the entire border with Egypt, destroy the smuggling tunnels that had fortified Hamas, dismantle the last Hamas battalions, bring its remaining hostages home and break Hamas’s administrative control over the entire Gaza Strip.

After months of delays, as negotiations over a cease-fire and a limited hostage exchange ebbed and flowed, Israel has put five brigades, the military has said — an estimated 10,000 troops — into the operation.

Israeli troops have concentrated initially on securing the border, which is lightly populated, circling around Rafah city and pressing the nearly one million people displaced from other parts of Gaza to move to areas that are supposed to be safer but where conditions remain dire.

Pushing slowly from the east, the Israeli military said on Thursday that troops were fighting in the neighborhoods of Brazil, near the border, and Al-Shaboura refugee camp, their deepest penetration into Rafah. But they insist that they have not yet tried to enter the central city, which in normal times has a population close to one million people.

Palestinians sitting in a room in a damaged building on Wednesday in Rafah.Eyad Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Analysts say that the anger and warnings from the Biden administration and other close allies of Israel have had an effect in moderating Israeli tactics, even if the assault remains devastating.

In interviews, officers who have just left the fighting in Rafah say that Israel is moving more deliberately and that it is using less airpower and artillery, and fewer, smaller bombs, forcing Israeli soldiers to engage in urban guerrilla warfare with Hamas fighters.

With the Americans insisting that Israel evacuate civilians as much as possible from planned zones of operation, in the past two weeks, as many as one million panicked civilians have moved west toward the sea and safer areas, even if facilities to house, feed and care for them are inadequate.

An Israeli officer in the reserves, who has just returned from southern Gaza and is not authorized to speak to the news media, said that the military was using noticeably less air bombardment, and that troops were advancing slowly west in a pincer movement, with one division working near the border, and the other moving into Rafah’s outskirts.

The Biden administration had refused to support Israel’s move on Rafah unless it saw a credible plan to evacuate and protect civilians. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said after his trip last weekend to Israel that, so far, the Israeli Army was not violating American red lines in Rafah.

“What we have seen so far in terms of Israel’s military operations in that area has been more targeted and limited, has not involved major military operations into the heart of dense urban areas,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We now have to see what unfolds from here. We will watch that, we will consider that, and we will see whether what Israel has briefed us and what they have laid out continues or something else happens.”

Palestinians who fled Rafah arriving this month in Deir al Balah, in central Gaza.Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel insists it has heeded American criticism and is trying to warn civilians to move out of the way of the fighting. But even if the civilians are not in the line of fire, the threats to them remain grave with little or no aid crossing from Egypt.

Israel seized the Rafah crossing in what it said was a limited operation against Hamas, effectively closing it. Israel has said it would like to reopen it, but its move on Rafah was not sufficiently coordinated with Egypt, which has demanded that Israel abandon its attack and pull back from the crossing before it can be reopened.

Tamir Hayman, the executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies and a reserve major general and a former head of military intelligence from 2018 to 2021, said that Israeli negotiators misread their Egyptian counterparts and thought Cairo would not object so strongly to its takeover of the crossing. Cairo has now said it will join South Africa in petitioning the International Court of Justice to find Israel guilty of violating the Genocide Convention.

Some Hamas fighters are believed to be evacuating along with civilians, hoping to fight again in areas that Israel had conquered and then abandoned, as in Jabaliya, where renewed fighting is intense, said Kobi Michael, a senior researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies. The Israeli military’s spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said this past week that the army had killed 180 fighters in the Rafah area.

But Mr. Michael and Israeli officials agree that the four Hamas battalions still in Rafah are not as well trained as those in the north and are not an urgent problem. Strategically, it is far more important for Israel to seal the border with Egypt, Mr. Hayman said.

Smoke rising above the skyline near the border wall between Egypt and Rafah this month.Ramez Habboub/Associated Press

Despite Egyptian denials of any tolerance of smuggling into Gaza, Mr. Hayman said, Israeli intelligence believes that most of Hamas’s weapons and components came from Egypt, either through smuggling tunnels or through the crossing itself, often carefully hidden over the years in regular commercial truck traffic.

Israel said publicly in mid-May that in and around Rafah it had already discovered some 700 tunnel shafts leading to 50 larger smuggling tunnels into Egypt. Mr. Michael said that the army had chosen not to blow up the tunnels yet because it would cause damage inside Egypt.

For the same reason, he said, the army is not revealing photographs of the tunnels to try to avoid embarrassing the Egyptian government, which has in the past acted aggressively to find and destroy such tunnels.

Unless smuggling into Gaza from Egypt can be controlled, Israel argues, Hamas or another militant group would be able to resupply over time. But how the crossing can be reopened, and under whose auspices, remains one of those deeply political questions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has refused to answer.

Mr. Netanyahu insists that Israel must dismantle Hamas’s military and administrative control over Gaza while refusing to engage with his allies and the Palestinian Authority, the main existing alternative to Hamas, about who will govern Gaza in the future and care for its citizens.

To many, that implies a lengthy Israeli military occupation that senior military officers have said they want to avoid.

Israeli military vehicles gathered this month near the border fence with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel.Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the Israeli chief of staff, has been quoted as saying he does not want to see Israeli soldiers conducting traffic in Gaza, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has called on Mr. Netanyahu “to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip.”

But in the broader picture, said Gabi Siboni, a reserve colonel and a fellow of the conservative-leaning Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, the main problem is that the army is only dealing with dismantling the Hamas military system and not the civilian one. Hamas’s control over the civilian sphere will be its launchpad for rebuilding its military, he said.

In his view, there is no alternative to an interim period of Israeli military rule in Gaza that could last several years.

Mr. Hayman said that while the military effort to take Rafah city at this pace could last another two to three weeks, the process of dismantling Hamas’s structures there could take much longer. “The choice is to withdraw or deepen your control and try to get Hamas underground,” he said. “You could stay there for years.”

But now, Mr. Hayman argues, the Rafah crossing could serve as a model or test case for governing Gaza. Israel, he suggested, could negotiate with Egypt and the United States and regional partners a deal whereby the Palestinian Authority takes at least symbolic sovereignty over Gaza’s side of the crossing. It could then invite the United Arab Emirates, for example, to help create a more efficient, faster border screening for people and for goods with U.S. assistance and technology.

A cooperative international architecture like that, he said, “could be a test case for all of Gaza, to be expanded over time, to answer the question of the day after.” But he stopped, then laughed. “These are just my dreams,” he said. “Nothing happens right now.”

Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right coalition allies have firmly rejected Palestinian Authority involvement in Gaza, he noted, and so far rejected the possibility of a regional solution to the war. “That is a great mistake,” Mr. Hayman said.

Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting.

Steven Erlanger is the chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe and is based in Berlin. He has reported from over 120 countries, including Thailand, France, Israel, Germany and the former Soviet Union. More about Steven Erlanger"

Condemnation Slows, but Does Not Stall, Israel’s Assault on Rafah - The New York Times

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