Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 15 February 2024



Taking Rafah Is Essential to Defeat Hamas

Feb. 14, 2024 6:58 pm ET

This picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the distance following Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Photo: said khatib/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Ever notice how it is always deemed a humanitarian imperative to let Hamas survive? The diplomatic pressure on Israel to stay out of Rafah, Hamas’s final stronghold, has become enormous. Hezbollah has escalated its attacks, and warnings descend daily from the White House, Europe and the Middle East, plus the United Nations-NGO complex.

The argument that there are too many civilians in Rafah, so Israel can’t fight the terrorists among and beneath them, captures the essence of Hamas’s military doctrine—and bows to it. The same argument was made about the hospitals, Gaza City and Khan Younis. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it Sunday, “Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there.”

Mr. Netanyahu and his military chief have already said that civilians will be evacuated from Rafah before Israel advances. Safe zones and a corridor out are being designated. There is plenty of empty space between Rafah and Khan Younis to its north, and the plan is to set up tent cities, perhaps with Egypt’s help. This will delay Israel, especially if the U.N. resists the evacuation again, but it’s the right thing to do.

The Biden Administration seeks to write off Mr. Netanyahu’s determination as right-wing politics, but Benny Gantz, the Prime Minister’s centrist chief rival, agrees with him. “There is no question about the need to act in any place in which there is terror,” Mr. Gantz said Monday. “Broad action in Rafah, as we said in the past, is not in question.”

They agree because the war aims accepted by Israelis across the political spectrum dictate taking the city. There’s no defeating Hamas and freeing the hostages without turning to Rafah.

Hamas hasn’t been toppled if it still governs territory. Hamas hasn’t been destroyed if its four Rafah battalions remain intact. Hamas can’t be destroyed while it has access to the Egyptian border and control of the flow of aid at Rafah.

Israel rescued two hostages in Rafah, and it believes many others are held there, including young women about whom we have already heard testimony of sexual abuse. How could Israel abandon them?

Hamas’s current demands make a hostage deal impossible. Israeli officials alternately call them “stratospheric” and “on another planet.” An invasion of Rafah is Israel’s best tool to change that. But every time the Biden Administration tries to appease its left flank by casting doubt on such an attack, it gives Hamas another reason not to budge.

After Oct. 7, President Biden pledged his support for destroying Hamas. But lately his Administration has increased its criticism of the war effort. Mr. Biden has called it “over the top” and is rolling out initiative after initiative to pressure Israel: a sanctions regime against some Israeli settlers with the potential to expand, a threat of automatic recognition of a Palestinian state, media leaks about investigations into Israel’s war tactics, and new strings attached to weapons shipments.

Is that how Washington managed Lend-Lease for Britain in World War II? Give us the tools, and we will finish the job, says Mr. Netanyahu. Once Rafah falls, Israel’s fighting can shift to a lower-intensity mopping-up phase, bringing the war to an end.

Rafah is Hamas’s last stand as a governing force, so expect it to pull every political lever to stop Israel. The question is why the Biden Administration is cooperating.

Wonder Land: Iran, Russia and China know that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are weak adversaries, not least because they have failed to raise U.S. defense capacity to the level of an unmistakable deterrent. Images: AP/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the February 15, 2024, print edition as 'Rafah Is Crucial to a Hamas Defeat'.

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