What’s behind Israel’s threat to attack Rafah?

Threats of a full-scale military operation on Rafah are aimed at pressuring Egypt, depopulating Gaza and helping Netanyahu cling to power, analysts say.

a sign says protect Rafah's children with an Israeli flag in the background
Demonstrators gather with signs during a protest by Israeli activists against the war in the Gaza Strip and the planned ground operation in Rafah, outside the Kirya military base which houses the defence ministry in Tel Aviv, on February 13, 2024 [Jack Guez/AFP]

On February 12, Saleh Abou Ghanem heard Israeli warplanes buzzing in the sky from night until dawn.

They were bombing Rafah, the southern Gaza town near the Egyptian border where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought relative safety from relentless Israeli attacks. While Abou Ghanem survived the attacks, he learned that his aunt was killed in her home by an Israeli bomb.

“She was sleeping when she was martyred,” he told Al Jazeera.

Last week, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his intention to expand military operations into Rafah. Two days later, Israel launched a series of strikes that killed dozens of people.

Analysts believe Netanyahu’s stated plan is part of a broader plot to depopulate Gaza and extend his political survival, as many predict that he will be removed from his post after the war.

But world leaders have warned that a full-scale assault on Rafah is a “red line,” despite few threatening to punish Israel if it goes through with the offensive.

After being forcefully evacuated into Rafah, Palestinians have nowhere else to flee. Many fear that a military operation could lead to some of the worst violence in a war that has already killed more than 28,000 Palestinians following Hamas’s deadly attack on October 7, in which nearly 1,200 people were killed.

“Some people have fled Rafah [since the recent attacks], but I don’t know where they went. There is nowhere to go. Where can anyone go?,” said Abou Ghanem, with resignation.

Depopulating Gaza

The looming military operation in Rafah intends to permanently displace hundreds of thousands of Palestinians over the border into Egypt, according to Omar Rahman, an expert on Israel-Palestine with the Middle East Council for Global Affairs think tank.

He told Al Jazeera that Israel’s war on Gaza has always been a much broader campaign against the Palestinian population and not just Hamas. He said that Israel’s plans to attack Rafah are further proof.

“The Israeli war machine is bearing down on Rafah with genocidal intent,” he said.

Haneen Rizk, an employee in Gaza with the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides schooling, healthcare and other relief services to Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and surrounding states, said that most people are just waiting to die.

She added that some families returned from Rafah to their homes and communities in central and northern Gaza. But with at least 70 percent of Gaza’s homes destroyed or damaged, Rizk said that most people in Rafah have no alternative but to stay put.

“If Egypt opens the border … most people would leave,” she told Al Jazeera.

“But right now, it’s so expensive for anyone to try and afford to get into Egypt. It requires about $5,000 and so few people have that kind of money.”

Egypt has sealed its border with Gaza since October 7. But Rizk was referring to private bus companies that charge hefty fees, which few in Gaza can afford, to transport Palestinians into Egypt.

“Game of chicken”

Since early in the war, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has publicly stated that he will not absorb Palestinian refugees out of concern that it would “end the Palestinian cause” and threaten Egypt’s national security. The Egyptian leader has called for a ceasefire to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that might complicate further his diplomatic relations with Israel.

“I call it a game of chicken,” said Rahman.

“The Israelis are hoping the Egyptians will concede by opening up the border [if pressured] and the Egyptians are hoping that they can buy enough time until Washington [ends] the war,” he told Al Jazeera.

Egypt may already be budging. Local rights groups have reported that Egypt is building a “buffer zone” in its Sinai region to absorb Palestinians expected to flee from Rafah. However, Egypt has not confirmed the reports.

CIA chief William Burns also recently visited Egypt’s capital Cairo to discuss the possibility of a temporary truce that would allow Hamas and Israel to exchange captives.

Hamas captured about 240 Israelis during its attack on Israeli communities and military outposts on October 7, while Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners for “security related’ offences — although many have not even been charged. Netanyahu has insisted on rescuing Israelis in Gaza via military means, despite objections from captives’ families who are pleading for a deal.

Rahman believes that Netanyahu’s real motive is to maintain an occupation force in Gaza for a considerable period to prevent Palestinians from rebuilding their homes and to ensure that civilians live under constant fear. “Israel’s intention … is to keep the pressure on [Palestinians] to flee,” he said.

Political ploy?

Netanyahu’s political survival is also tied to maintaining the war in Gaza, according to Mairav Zonszein, an expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict with the International Crisis Group, a think tank dedicated to conflict prevention and resolution.

Netanyahu’s popularity is low and many Israelis are calling for a national election after the war. Any national vote would likely remove Netanyahu from power, according to recent opinion polls.

As a result, Zonszein believes that Netanyahu may delay a full-scale military operation on Rafah to prolong the war.

“All of this talk about Rafah – and leveraging it for a hostage deal – is just a way for Netanyahu to bide more and more time,” she said.

Palestinians in Rafah hope Netanyahu is bluffing, but many believe that an onslaught is imminent. Abou Ghanem, who lost his aunt, said that he just wants his three young children – two girls and one boy – to survive.

“Children are dying every day … and we’re living like animals,” he told Al Jazeera. “Tell the world that we just want a ceasefire.”

Source: Al Jazeera