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Israel on the Defensive as Its Strategy, Both Military and Humanitarian, Is Questioned
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Israel on the Defensive as Its Strategy, Both Military and Humanitarian, Is Questioned

The IDF’s Rafah operation begins amid U.S. opposition and Israeli infighting.

An Israeli tank moves along the border with the Gaza Strip as seen from a position on the Israeli side of the border on May 13, 2024, in Southern Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

KEREM SHALOM, Israel—After four months of relative calm in Gaza, Israel has begun the push into Rafah, the Strip’s southernmost city, to eliminate what it calls Hamas’ last stronghold. But as the offensive progresses, Israel is having to defend the conduct of the seven-month war on two fronts. To the U.S., it must show that it’s doing everything it can to protect Gazan civilians. And to its own population, it must prove that it has a clear roadmap to victory, particularly as Hamas crops up in areas where it was previously degraded.

Privately, U.S. officials have offered to help Israel locate top Hamas leaders and provide for evacuated Gazans if it agrees to limit the scope of its offensive, the Washington Post reported Saturday. Even in the face of souring relations with America, Israel may not be interested in the offer. 

“We do not need U.S. help in evacuating people or intelligence. We have our own intelligence systems. What we need from the U.S. is their support and their understanding that we’re fighting an enemy that must be destroyed,” an Israeli official told The Dispatch, speaking on the condition of anonymity and adding that Jerusalem is “deeply appreciative” of the U.S. backing it has received thus far. “I think that the United States understands that there is no way in which the IDF doesn’t operate in Rafah, since there are four active Hamas battalions there.”

More than 300,000 Gazans fled the area following IDF evacuation orders in recent days, as Israel tries to balance its efforts to minimize civilian harm in Rafah with its desire to deliver a decisive blow to the terrorist army hiding among and beneath evacuees there. 

As Israel launched campaigns to clear Hamas from northern and central Gaza earlier in the war, civilians and fighters alike fled south to Rafah, where more than a million people joined the year-round population of a few hundred thousand. Last week, the IDF began dropping leaflets, making calls, sending texts, and reaching out via Arabic-language broadcasters to urge civilians to leave parts of eastern Rafah and head north and west. Together with aid groups, the IDF has worked to establish an “expanded humanitarian zone” from Deir al-Balah in central Gaza to al-Mawasi in the south—a coastal stretch now equipped with tents, kitchens, and medical equipment where most of the evacuees who left Rafah have relocated.

On Saturday, Israeli officials announced the opening of a new field hospital to serve evacuees in the Deir al-Balah area, which will be run by the International Medical Corps. “This area has exploded in terms of the number of [internally displaced persons] settlements,” Dr. Javed Ali, who leads the International Medical Corps’ emergency response in Gaza, told The Dispatch. The organization has been working to provide antenatal and postnatal care, emergency services, and other forms of medical support to the growing population seeking shelter in the area, he added. 

Additional aid groups are also moving their operations to the designated humanitarian zones in order to accommodate the influx of people from Rafah. One of them is Project HOPE, a humanitarian organization providing medical care in the enclave.

“We are in the process of shifting our operations to be in line with where most of the people are evacuating to, which is mostly Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah,” Moses Kondowe, the Rafah-based Gaza team lead for Project HOPE, told The Dispatch, noting recent food and water shortages. 

Amid active combat near Gaza’s southern border crossings, getting medicine and food into the Strip has become increasingly difficult in recent days. The United Nations World Food Program claimed Friday that no aid trucks had entered through southern crossings for three days, adding that the continued suspension of aid deliveries would force its operations “into a standstill while families run out of food.” 

Israeli officials accuse Hamas of intentionally sabotaging the entrance of humanitarian aid into Gaza by firing on a key border crossing. As recently as Sunday, terror groups launched rockets toward Kerem Shalom—a southern crossing into Israel and an important lifeline for the Strip. Israel temporarily halted shipments through the route earlier this month after another rocket attack killed four soldiers

Much of the food, fuel, and medicine that does make its way into the enclave is seized by Hamas gunmen, an Israeli military official told The Dispatch. “Hamas is stealing aid for itself, shooting rockets at the crossings, and is preventing Israel from trying to help the population,” the official said. On Sunday, the IDF announced the opening of a new, third crossing into northern Gaza, where humanitarian organizations say food shortages are most dire. 

In the south, Egyptian authorities are reportedly refusing to coordinate aid shipments with Israel after the IDF captured the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing into Egypt last week. Israel says the Philadelphi Corridor—an 8-mile stretch of land between Egypt and Gaza—has allowed for the above- and below-ground smuggling of weapons and fighters in and out of the Palestinian enclave. Egypt, meanwhile, denounced Israel’s move on the crossing as an “unacceptable escalation.”  

Yet Israeli military officials insist their operations in Rafah remain measured and precise. The offensive has thus far focused on Hamas targets in eastern Rafah, where the IDF says it destroyed rocket launch sites, unearthed tunnel shafts, and killed dozens of terrorists in its advance. “Our operations against Hamas in Rafah remain limited in scope,” IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Sunday, urging Gazan civilians to heed evacuation orders. “Our war is against Hamas, not against the people of Gaza.”

Updated casualty counts lend new credence to the claim. Earlier this month, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) amended its death toll for the ongoing conflict, cutting the estimated number of women and children it previously said were killed by nearly 50 percent. 

Prior to Israel’s push into Rafah, the U.S. had repeatedly warned against a military campaign in the crowded southern city without a credible plan for relocating and caring for civilians. In an interview with CNN that aired last Wednesday, President Joe Biden went so far as to warn that such a move could result in the suspension of some weapons shipments to Israel—remarks that provoked bipartisan backlash from American lawmakers. But the White House’s red line doesn’t appear to have been crossed in recent days of fighting. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say what we’ve seen here in the last 24 hours connotes or indicates a broad, large-scale invasion or major ground operation,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, warned on Sunday that an Israeli military victory over Hamas in Rafah might be short-lived without a postwar plan. Without another governing body, there will be “a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, by anarchy, and ultimately by Hamas again,” he said. 

Renewed fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters in northern Gaza in recent days underscored this point. As the IDF moved into the Zeitoun neighborhood of southern Gaza City—an area it has already cleared of militants twice since the start of the war—Israeli troops came under at least 17 separate attacks on Friday, according to a report by the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War. Fighting has also begun again in areas around Jabalia, a neighborhood north of Gaza City, as Hamas tries to reconstitute there. 

The Hamas attacks, which appear to be coordinated, show that the group is still active “both as a military force and also as a political force in a much more limited capacity,” Brian Carter, an analyst at the Critical Threats Project, told The Dispatch, adding that the resurgence of Hamas in the north casts doubt on whether the IDF will achieve its objectives in the south. “The Rafah operation might generate some short-term tactical effects in terms of killing fighters, capturing rocket stockpiles. But at the end of the day, it’s not going to accomplish the objective of destroying Hamas.”  

Even among Israeli military officials, there’s growing concern that this may be the case. During a meeting over the weekend, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi reportedly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his failure to put forth a viable “day after” plan for the enclave. “We are now operating once again in Jabalia,” Halevi was quoted by Israel’s Channel 13 as saying. “As long as there’s no diplomatic process to develop a governing body in the Strip that isn’t Hamas, we’ll have to launch campaigns again and again in other places to dismantle Hamas’ infrastructure.”

In an interview with The Dispatch, the Israeli official concurred. “There are no political achievements through military operations. Military operations and political maneuvers should go together. And if you do only military operations, then the political problem remains,” the official said, pointing to the reemergence of Hamas fighters in areas of northern Gaza that are now being cleared by ground troops for the third time. “What’s going into the territory that we left is terrorism again. Terrorism and chaos, since there was no kind of governing authority in the area.”

Correction, May 14, 2024: This article was updated to accurately reflect the population of Rafah, which was a few hundred thousand people before the arrival of refugees from elsewhere in Gaza.

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.