How Israel pushed dotted ‘red lines’ to have its way in Rafah

Israel has ignored calls from its Western allies not to conduct a major operation in Rafah and faced no consequences.

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment
Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment near an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, on May 28, 2024 [Jehad Alshrafi/AP Photo]

Israeli tanks have rolled into Rafah’s city centre and its army announced that it now controls the entire Philadelphi Corridor, the strip of land that runs along Egypt’s border with Gaza’s Rafah Governorate.

This violates the conditions of its treaty with Egypt that stipulate the strip, also known as the Salah al-Din Axis, is a buffer zone that Egypt oversees from its side of the border.

Israel had been threatening a “full-scale” land invasion of Rafah for months, much to the distress of the international community, which warned that such an attack would be a “red line”.

Then, a little over three weeks ago, on May 6, Israel said it wanted to execute a “limited operation” against Hamas targets in eastern Rafah.

It intensified air attacks on the area and ordered some 100,000 displaced Palestinians packed tightly there to evacuate to al-Mawasi which, aid organisations have said in horror, cannot support human life.

By the next day, it had taken control of the Rafah land crossing, a death knell for aid deliveries into the besieged and battered Gaza Strip and its starving people. Things only got worse for the 1.4 million people seeking refuge in Rafah from then on.

Whose line is it?

Israel seems to have crossed all Western “red lines” with no apparent consequences or remorse for Palestinian casualties, experts have told Al Jazeera.

In February, all European Union members – except Hungary – warned Israel against a full-scale military operation on Rafah and the staggering human cost it would cause.

In March, United States President Joe Biden said a major Israeli invasion of Rafah would violate his self-declared “red line”, unless arrangements were made to protect and evacuate civilians.

As it scaled up air strikes and a ground assault on Rafah, Israel’s lawyers were telling the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on May 17, that it would be a “localised” operation.

Israel then captured part of the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Egypt, which sees the move as a threat to its national security and the treaty between them.

As its land forces crept deeper into Rafah from the east, Israel maintained its attacks on the western flank of the governorate.

On May 26, it struck a displacement camp in Tal as-Sultan west of Rafah; Gaza’s media office said Israel dropped a 900kg (2,000-pound) bomb on the camp.

Israel said it fired a precision missile at a target more than a kilometre away, ostensibly to kill two Hamas fighters and that the damage to the camp must have been caused by a fuel tank exploding.

At least 45 civilians – half of them children – were burned to death, decapitated or otherwise killed by the blast.

“Something I have learned from covering this conflict over the last eight months is that there are no red lines on this issue,” said Mairav Zonszein, a senior Israeli analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit dedicated to ending conflicts worldwide.

A Palestinian child view the destruction
A displaced Palestinian child looks at some of the destruction after Israeli aircraft bombed shelters of displaced Palestinians in Rafah on May 27, 2024 [Hani Alshaer/Anadolu Agency]

“Red lines keep moving and that’s something to keep in mind. [Western] ‘red lines’ are not real,” she told Al Jazeera.

Sea change?

Israel’s gruesome bombing of the displacement camp kick-started a policy shift among its traditional allies, according to Hugh Lovatt, an expert on Israel-Palestine with the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

He believes some European capitals were dismayed with how brazenly Israel contravened the provisional order the ICJ issued on May 24.

The ICJ ordered – 13 judges to two – Israel not to proceed with an operation in Rafah that undermines the rights of Palestinians under the Genocide Convention.

Legal experts previously told Al Jazeera that any major operation in Rafah effectively violates the ICJ’s order.

Lovatt agrees.

“It’s difficult to interpret Israel’s latest operation in Rafah as anything more than Israel thumbing its nose to the international community,” he said.

This disregard for the ICJ is causing some of Israel’s allies to consider options that would not have been conceivable a year ago, Lovatt added.

He pointed to reports that the European Union could suspend its EU Association Agreement, which grants Israel preferential access to its markets.

“There will be strong opposition … from some states, particularly from Hungary,” he said. “But the lack of unity may not be a problem depending on the mechanism the EU uses to suspend its agreement [with Israel].”

Washington’s move?

On May 8, Biden threatened to suspend US offensive arms sales to Israel if the latter moves ahead with its invasion into Rafah, clarifying that he would never halt “all” weapons because the defence of Israel is “critical”.

After Israel attacked the Tal as-Sultan displacement camp, the Biden administration deliberated, then concluded that Israel’s gradual invasion of Rafah and ongoing bombardment of “safe zones” – which it had told beleaguered civilians to go to – did not constitute a “major offensive” that would trigger a response.

Omar Rahman, an Israel-Palestine expert with the Middle East Council on Foreign Affairs, believes the US will never take punitive action against Israel.

He said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has successfully “called Biden’s bluff” throughout the war.

“Netanyahu knew that a red line coming from the US is meaningless because Washington is incapable of holding Israel accountable for its actions,” he told Al Jazeera.

Rahman added that every single condemnation coming from Biden has been “walked back” by his own administration, signalling to Israel that they are not as frustrated as they claim to be.

“The US still backs the war as a war … and so I don’t think Israel is concerned that the US will do anything decisive because they have the same interests in mind,” Zonszein from ICG told Al Jazeera.

U.S. President Joe Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
Biden is welcomed by Netanyahu as he visits Israel amid Israel’s war on Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023 [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

She believes Israeli and US interests align in Gaza since they both want to “keep the pressure” on Hamas, although the war has failed to achieve Israel’s stated goal of “eradicating” the group.

Symbolic measures

On Tuesday, Ireland, Norway, and Spain recognised Palestine as a state after condemning Israel’s attack on another displacement camp in northwest Rafah.

However, experts say that the move is largely symbolic and will do little to protect Palestinian civilians.

“Recognising Palestine doesn’t do anything on the ground,” Zonszein said. “It is an easy fix that doesn’t match the magnitude of what’s needed right now.”

Rahman said no talk of “red lines” will deter Israel from its objective until the country suffers punitive measures for violating international law.

He added that Western states are enabling Israel to pursue what he believes is their real goal: the destruction of Rafah, which is the last refuge for civilians across the Gaza Strip.

“Israel went into Rafah despite the warnings and the highly predictable results in terms of human casualties because closing the final lifeline to the civilian population and destroying their last refuge is essential to [Israel’s] goal of liquidating Gaza,” he told Al Jazeera.

“When people like myself use the word ‘genocidal’ to describe Israel’s campaign in Gaza, we are not being hyperbolic.”

Source: Al Jazeera