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Roula Khalaf, editor-in-chief of the FT, selects her favorite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The writer is director of the US program at the International Crisis Group. Robert Blecher, director of the Future of Conflict program, also contributed
The war in Gaza has reached its peak since the October 7 attacks. At that time, fears spread that Israel would expel Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, triggering an all-out war in the Middle East. With Israel now threatening to move toward Rafah – Gaza’s southernmost town, where more than half of the enclave’s besieged population is sheltering – these worst-case scenarios have once again become a real possibility. It’s hard to imagine things getting worse, but an assault on Rafah would up the ante. The United States is the only power capable of stopping it. To do so, it will need to exert a certain degree of pressure that it has so far been reluctant to exert.
Israel intensified its air attacks on Rafah after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’ ceasefire conditions. He announced his intention to evacuate civilians from Rafah and send ground forces there. Before Netanyahu’s announcement, the United States had indicated that it had not seen any serious Israeli plans moving forward and was opposed to them.
It remains unclear whether Israel is truly determined to gain a foothold in Rafah or is simply trying to impose concessions on Hamas. Even in the latter case, Israel might view a ground attack as inevitable if efforts to negotiate a truce fail. It is difficult to exaggerate the cost of Israel’s progress. Rafah is the epicenter of one of the worst humanitarian crises of this century – expanding the military operation there would make the disaster exponentially worse.
There is no way to evacuate so many people. To the south, Egypt refuses the movement of Palestinians on its territory, wary of the burden and fearing a risk to its own security. Perhaps more importantly, he does not want to pave the way for “a second Nakba.” To the north, Israel took Khan Younis, leaving open a strip of coast that could allow passage to the north. Those who have the capacity and means to evacuate again will find the rest of the strip uninhabitable. In Rafah, everyone is already deprived of something essential. An evacuation would deprive the population of practically everything.
The best way to avert calamity – for Rafah, for all of Gaza and for the Israelis who remain in captivity – is for Hamas and Israel to reach an agreement. The broad outlines are there: a cessation of hostilities and prisoner/hostage exchanges, in several stages, combined with an Israeli withdrawal from certain parts of Gaza and an increase in imports and aid. The delay mainly concerns the duration of the ceasefire and the extent of the Israeli withdrawal. Washington’s preferred approach is to negotiate a temporary ceasefire with the intention of making it lasting. But this will only work if the United States ensures that the cessation endures.
Regardless of how this round of talks ends, we know what the outcome of the war will likely be: a degraded Hamas and, ultimately, an alternative administration. It remains to be seen to what extent Gaza itself will be destroyed – its population, 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 start of the war. Even the most modest goal of destroying Hamas’s military capability appears out of reach, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.
Much is at stake in Rafah. More importantly, the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mainly in Gaza but also throughout the region. Although it has so far avoided an all-out regional war, the United States finds itself engaged in an escalation of hostilities with the “Axis of Resistance” in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Yemen. While Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militia, have avoided a catastrophic escalation on the Israeli-Lebanese border, the balance is fragile as both sides engage in cross-border hostilities.
Although Iran and its allies appear reluctant to further escalation, a bloody campaign in Rafah – especially if Gazans are pushed back towards Egypt – could change their calculus. The longer regional hostilities continue, the greater the risk of escalation due to miscalculations. A decision on Rafah would also further damage the credibility of the Biden administration, which is belatedly moving away from the blank check support it has offered so far. While the White House has advised Israeli leaders against a ground invasion of Rafah, it has privately pushed Israel on a number of issues, such as reducing harm to civilians and expanding humanitarian access, and failed.
American pressure on Israel must go beyond harsh words and leaked angry conversations. The United States is today complicit in the destruction of Gazan society and the impoverishment of a large part of the band. But even at this advanced stage, choices must be made and further disasters must be avoided.