Israel Advances Offensive in Rafah Despite Rising International Pressure | THE MEDIA LINE

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Israel Advances Offensive in Rafah Despite Rising International Pressure | Find Avi Melamed’s insights quoted by Keren Setton in this article for the THE MEDIA LINE.

Israel’s renewed offensive in Rafah comes as Spain, Ireland, and Norway plan to recognize a Palestinian state, further isolating Israel diplomatically

Israel is pushing forward with its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, months after the operation was delayed due to intense international pressure against it.

At the same time, with the war well into its eighth month, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated diplomatically. On May 22, Spain, Ireland, and Norway announced they would recognize a Palestinian state next week in a step that outraged Israel but also signaled its precarious position. Israeli public opinion has fluctuated between the wish for a deal releasing the 128 hostages held illegally by Hamas terrorists and support for a more aggressive offensive to subdue the organization.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, is designated as a terrorist organization by the US, UK, EU, and several other countries. In the intervening years, Hamas set off several conflicts with Israel by pounding the southern towns with missiles periodically. The current war began on October 7, 2023, with a major Hamas invasion across Israel’s internationally recognized southern border. Hamas terrorists killed over 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250, taking them as hostages back to Gaza. In response, after pursuing the invaders, Israel vowed to protect its population by removing Hamas from power, destroying its infrastructure in Gaza, and recovering the hostages.

About half the hostages were released in a temporary truce last November, but 128 remain imprisoned in Gaza. Some are known to have died, but the exact number still alive is not known.

Phases of the war have included Israel taking control of portions of Gaza City in the north and Khan Yunis in the center, but operations continue or have resumed in various areas.

Rafah was always a target as well, but according to United Nations agencies, more than a million people were displaced into Rafah. The same agencies have repeatedly reported an exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis in the enclave; Israel has denied any allegations of “impending famine” and points to Hamas’ efforts to corner food supplies.

The situation of displaced civilians was the main concern of the US and other countries who feared an Israeli operation in the city. Since the announcement of an impending Israeli operation, however, hundreds of thousands have reportedly left Rafah.

Rafah is key to Israel’s war aims because, according to the IDF and the Israeli defense establishment, the Rafah crossing (into Egypt) is believed to be Hamas’ main armament lifeline and the hub of Hamas’ intricate tunnel network that allows its members to move freely throughout the strip. Many of the hostages are likely being hidden in those tunnels, whether in Rafah or elsewhere in Gaza.

Earlier this week, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Israeli officials and heard from them about their plan to minimize civilian harm. In a press conference at the White House, Sullivan said the US administration will “remain closely engaged with the Israeli government regarding its military actions in Rafah.” At the same time, the White House backed down from its intense opposition to a larger-scale operation, reportedly in light of the dwindling numbers of displaced Palestinians in the area.

Questions about the operation are still part of the international conversation. “Israel entered Rafah despite warnings because it continues to enjoy impunity,” said Dalal Saheb Iriqat, assistant professor at the Arab American University. “In the face of all the measures threatening to be used against it, Israel has long been enjoying this state of exception, so why wouldn’t it continue with its plans?”

On the other hand, Avi Melamed, founder of Inside the Middle East Institute and former intelligence official, explained that “The Israeli army is continuing to operate there in a modular way, layer by layer, progressing in accordance with the evacuation of civilians. It looks as if there is an intensification of the fighting in Rafah, currently focusing on two neighborhoods near the Philadelphi corridor.”

Israel would like to establish control over this narrow strip of land, coined the Philadelphi Corridor, approximately 13 kilometers (8 miles) along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. As part of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979, it was designated as a buffer zone monitored by Israeli forces, who maintained control of it until Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Egypt then deployed troops on its side of the border, with the Palestinian Authority (PA) taking over control of the Gaza side. In 2007, the Hamas terrorist organization violently overthrew the PA, seizing control of the Corridor as well as the rest of Gaza. Ever since, the narrow corridor has proven critical to Hamas’ efforts to gain strength.

Despite the beginning of the long-awaited Rafah phase, many observers think that Israel’s war on Hamas is far from over. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised “complete victory,” but in the meantime, the army has returned to areas in Gaza where it previously operated and then withdrew, only to have to return again. Netanyahu has been at odds with the US because of what Americans perceived as a lack of strategy, something the White House warned about since the beginning of the war. Netanyahu also vowed to capture Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, a goal that has been out of Israel’s reach thus far.

“The most important thing,” Melamed told The Media Line, “is to release the hostages and create a situation in which Hamas cannot dictate the way it has for the past decades. This requires a military plan which crushes Hamas’ military backbone and a political plan which promotes conditions on the ground in which Hamas will not be able to continue dictating policy.”

“Hamas cannot be completely eliminated,” Melamud said. “The destruction of Hamas tunnel network is an important step in reaching Israel’s goal but will not by itself crush the organization.” After more than seven months of war, Hamas remains standing and has managed to regroup in some places.

On Wednesday, the families of several female soldiers still being held hostage gave approval for the publication of video footage from Hamas body cams that were found at the scene of their abduction. The footage shows the young Israeli women wounded and bleeding, some being dragged by terrorists into jeeps that later took them to Gaza. Israelis expressed outrage over the video.

Hours after the video was released, Israel’s war cabinet approved the resumption of talks aimed at hostage release, which could also include a temporary or permanent cessation of fighting. Public reaction to the video ranged from people demanding an even tougher approach toward Hamas with others using the difficult images to emphasize the need for a hasty deal.

“The hostages will need to be released in the end,” Iriquat told The Media Line. “But unfortunately, as part of the negotiation tactics by Hamas, they are being used as a token. Why would Hamas give this up if they know Israel will continue to commit its crimes?”

Israel is under duress in the international diplomatic arena. While Israel initially enjoyed the support of many in the international community, many now sympathize with the expected recognition by at least Spain, Ireland, and Norway of a Palestinian state, which Israel opposes, and with the recent request by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue warrants against Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The ICC prosecutor also filed a request to issue warrants against Hamas leaders, but that move, which essentially equated Hamas and Israel, was highly criticized by the US and several—but not all—of Israel’s allies. Israel is also facing allegations, brought by South Africa and joined by a few others, of “plausible” genocide in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). These could also play into how Israel moves ahead in Gaza.

“For the Palestinians, these diplomatic positions restore trust and hope in the international community,” said Iriqat. “In the past years, they have lost hope and faith. Tools of diplomacy have been used as a means of procrastination, and armed resistance groups used them as justification. But Palestinians have no illusions. This won’t bring an end to the Israeli occupation.”

As the war drags on, Israel’s credit is waning: in addition to the wearing down of its initial tactical military achievements, it is facing a tidal wave of international contempt. The fighting in Rafah could cause more friction. If Netanyahu insists on his promise of “total victory,” Israel could be facing much worse both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic sphere.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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