Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, dismissed a wave of global criticism, announcing on Sunday the intention to proceed with a ground incursion into the southern Gazan city of Rafah once Israel finalizes arrangements for the safe evacuation of the over a million people currently seeking refuge there.
“Those opposed to entering Rafah under any circumstances are essentially advocating for us to ‘surrender the war’,” stated Mr. Netanyahu in an interview on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”
According to analysts, the intricacies of an operation in Rafah suggest that a ground invasion is unlikely to occur in the near future, despite the city already being targeted by repeated airstrikes. The city is overflowing with refugees who sought shelter there to escape the conflict in the northern regions.
Basem Naim, a Hamas official, dismissed Mr. Netanyahu’s threats of invading Rafah, stating that it would not intensify pressure on Palestinian negotiators to accept Israel’s terms for a ceasefire. Gazan health officials report that over 28,000 people, including numerous women and children, have already lost their lives since the conflict began in October.
“An invasion would result in more atrocities and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis,” expressed Mr. Naim in a text message on Sunday.
Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli general and national security adviser, emphasized the necessity for Israel to enter Rafah in order to achieve its goals of dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities and its control in the Gaza Strip. However, he noted that planning the invasion would require time.
“It is not imminent,” Mr. Amidror, now a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, a conservative think tank, stated. “But it will have to be done.”
Mr. Netanyahu stressed that Israel is committed to safeguarding civilians. “We’re not taking this lightly,” he assured. “Ensuring the safety of civilians is an essential part of our war efforts.”
During a phone conversation on Sunday, President Biden conveyed to the Israeli prime minister that any military operation in Rafah should only proceed with a “credible and feasible plan” to ensure the safety of the individuals seeking refuge there, according to the White House.
For weeks, Israel has been discussing the deployment of troops to Rafah, as it had advised Palestinians to seek shelter there, in spite of mounting pressure from global leaders to agree to a ceasefire. Although Mr. Netanyahu has publicly rejected Hamas’s latest proposal for a pause in fighting, negotiations continue with the Biden administration emphasizing their continuation in the days ahead.
Rafah, situated along the border with Egypt, has seen an influx of Palestinian refugees, although Egypt has refused to accommodate them, citing concerns for its security and the potential permanent displacement that could undermine Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Egypt has bolstered its frontier with Gaza and cautioned Israel that any influx of Gazans into its territory could jeopardize the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, a linchpin of stability in the Middle East since 1979.
The Biden administration has voiced apprehensions regarding the prospect of combat during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as per two Israeli officials familiar with the discussions. An attack during Ramadan, which is scheduled to commence on March 10, following the lunar calendar, could be particularly provocative to Muslims in the region and beyond.
Avi Dichter, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, disregarded concerns about the timing, stating, “Ramadan is not a time devoid of conflicts,” and referred to Egypt’s war against Israel during Ramadan in 1973. “It never has been.”
In Rafah, where many refugees are fatigued from being displaced multiple times, some are anxiously seeking their next steps. For one Palestinian, Ghada al-Kurd, who fled with her family, Rafah marked the fifth place they sought refuge in since leaving their home in Gaza City in October. “I regret leaving Gaza City,” expressed Ms. al-Kurd, 37.
She has not seen her two daughters for nearly four months as they remained in the north with their father. “Staying home would have been better than the suffering and humiliation of displacement because every time you flee to a new place, you have to start from scratch,” she commented.
Mohammed al-Baradie, 24, was preparing to move again from his tent in Rafah, living under the constant threat of an Israeli Army invasion into the city. “We are so weary,” conveyed Mr. al-Baradie in a voice message.
Reporters involved in coverage were Hiba Yazbek, Aaron Boxerman, Emma Bubola, and Gabby Sobelman.