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Only the US can stop an Israeli move into Rafah

The war in Gaza has reached its most consequential juncture since just after the October 7 attacks. In those early days, fears spread that Israel would expel Palestinians from the strip, sparking all-out Middle East war. With Israel now threatening to move on Rafah — Gaza’s southernmost city, where more than half the enclave’s beleaguered population is sheltering — these worst-case scenarios have again become a genuine possibility. It is hard to imagine things getting worse, but an assault on Rafah would up the ante. The US is the only power that can stop it. To do so, it will have to exert a degree of pressure it has so far been reluctant to apply.

Israel stepped up its aerial attacks on Rafah after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’s ceasefire terms. He announced his intention to evacuate civilians from Rafah and send in ground forces. Before Netanyahu’s announcement the US indicated it had seen no serious Israeli planning for an advance and had registered opposition to it. 

It remains unclear whether Israel is in fact determined to move into Rafah or is simply trying to compel concessions from Hamas. Even if the latter, Israel may consider a ground assault unavoidable should efforts to negotiate a truce fail. It is hard to overstate the costs of Israel moving ahead. Rafah is the epicentre of one of this century’s worst humanitarian crises — to extend the military operation into this area would worsen the catastrophe exponentially. 

There is no way to evacuate so many people. To the south, Egypt refuses to have Palestinians displaced into its territory, wary of the burden and fearing a risk to its own security. Perhaps most importantly, it does not want to pave the way for “a second Nakba”. To the north, Israel has taken Khan Younis, leaving open a sliver of coastline that might allow passage north. Those with the capacity and wherewithal to evacuate yet again will find the rest of the strip uninhabitable. Everyone in Rafah is already deprived of something essential. An evacuation would leave the population bereft of virtually everything.

The best way to head off a calamity — for Rafah, for all of Gaza, and the Israelis who remain in captivity — is for Hamas and Israel to agree to a deal. The outline is there: a cessation of hostilities and prisoner/hostage exchange, over several stages, combined with an Israeli withdrawal from parts of Gaza and an increase in imports and aid. The delay principally concerns the length of the ceasefire and the extent of Israel’s withdrawal. Washington’s favoured approach is to negotiate a temporary ceasefire with the intention of making it lasting. But that will only work if the US makes sure the cessation endures.

Regardless of how this round of talks ends, we know what the war’s outcome is likely to be: a degraded Hamas and, eventually, an alternative administration. What remains to be seen is how much of Gaza itself will be destroyed — its people, physical infrastructure, cultural heritage, social fabric and economy — and how many Israeli hostages will die or be killed in captivity. Hamas will not be eradicated, as Israel resolved at the war’s outset. Even the more modest goal of destroying Hamas’s military capacity appears beyond reach, according to US intelligence assessments. 

A lot is on the line in Rafah. Most importantly, the lives of hundreds of thousands, primarily in Gaza but also around the region. While it has so far avoided all-out regional war, the US finds itself engaged in escalating hostilities with the “Axis of Resistance” in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Yemen. While Israel and Hizbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia militia, have avoided catastrophic escalation on the Israel-Lebanon border, the equilibrium is shaky as both sides engage in cross-border hostilities. 

Although Iran and its allies seem reluctant to escalate further, a bloody campaign in Rafah — especially if Gazans are pushed into Egypt — could change their calculation. The longer regional hostilities continue, the higher the risk of escalation through miscalculation. A move on Rafah would also further undermine the credibility of the Biden administration, which is belatedly shifting away from the blank cheque support it has offered to date. While the White House has counselled Israeli leaders against a ground invasion of Rafah, it has privately pushed Israel on a number of issues, such as the reduction of civilian harm and the expansion of humanitarian access, and failed. 

America’s pressure on Israel must go beyond stern words and leaked angry conversations. The US today is complicit in the destruction of Gazan society, the immiseration of much of the strip. But even at this late stage there are choices to be made and further catastrophe to be avoided.