Arieh Kovler

Netanyahu’s strategy in Rafah isn’t working

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Getty Images)

On 7 April, six months after the October massacres in southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the public that the country was just ‘one step away from victory’ in its war against Hamas in Gaza. Nearly two months later, Israel hasn’t taken that step yet. The war continues. No more hostages have been released alive. Hamas rockets still fall inside Israel, including a barrage earlier this week that rained down on the suburbs of Tel Aviv.

The two leaders of Israel’s war effort haven’t spoken to each other for a fortnight

In the meantime, international public opinion has hardened against Israel. Some countries, like Colombia, have broken diplomatic relations. Turkey has announced a trade embargo. Ireland, Norway and Spain recognised a Palestinian state in a move that seemed less about Palestinians and more about trying to send a message to Israel. As part of its ongoing investigation, the International Court of Justice issued an ambiguously-worded order that either places some limits on the Israeli military’s operation in the Gaza border city of Rafah or, perhaps, demands it be stopped altogether. Unsurprisingly, Israel has chosen to interpret it as merely a limitation. 

More significant, though, was the decision of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Ahmad Khan KC, to seek arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, accusing them of deliberately starving the people of Gaza. If the Court does issue warrants, Mr Netanyahu’s foreign travel will be restricted to those countries, like the US and Russia, that are not state parties to the ICC. This backlash would be bad enough if Israel was winning its war against Hamas, but victory doesn’t seem quite as imminent as Netanyahu used to claim. 

Israeli forces have operated in almost every town in Gaza, targeting Hamas battalions, tunnels and weapons. Huge arms caches and rocket factories have been uncovered, thousands of terrorists killed (alongside, of course, thousands of Gazan civilians). More than a million Gazans have been displaced. The only untouched Hamas stronghold is Rafah. For months, Netanyahu threatened, hyped and promised that the IDF would take the city. For months the world warned that an invasion would be a humanitarian crisis. For months, nothing happened. 

Israeli forces are now operating in Rafah, but in a more limited operation than the full-scale attack originally planned. And even this approach can lead to terrible tragedies, like the deaths of 45 Gazans in a tent camp, when the Israeli air force targeted two Hamas leaders nearby. The IDF claims the civilian deaths were an accident, probably caused by a fuel tank catching fire. 

When this Rafah operation is over, and Israel once again announces that it has destroyed tunnels, rockets and terror operatives — what then? That’s the question that’s exercising Gallant. As soon as Israeli troops leave an area in Gaza, Hamas comes back. Israel has had to go back into parts of northern Gaza multiple times to clear out Hamas, but the Islamists are still the government of Gaza and goes right back to policing the streets, collecting taxes, running municipal services, seizing and distributing food aid, and executing Gazans that it claims are traitors.

Gallant issued a public ultimatum to Netanyahu: under his watch, he said, Israel will not be a military occupying force in Gaza, administering the daily lives of two million Palestinians while facing the constant risk of terrorist attacks. He called for an alternative government to Hamas to be found, fostered and installed. Netanyahu loudly opposed this, saying that there should be no plan for the ‘day after’ the war until it is already won. These two leaders of Israel’s war effort haven’t spoken to each other for a fortnight now. Benny Gantz, a centrist former military chief of staff whose party joined the government after the 7 October attacks, has also had enough. He set out his own ultimatum demanding Netanyahu at least discuss a plan for the future of Gaza by early June, or he’d resign. Netanyahu refused, and the deadline is only days away. 

Throughout this war, Netanyahu has promised ‘total victory’: the complete destruction of Hamas as both a terror organisation and a government. Dismantling the terror organisation has been hard enough (the US estimates that Hamas could still have nearly half of its fighting strength intact), but removing the government is even tougher. All the alternatives to Hamas rule in Gaza are unacceptable to the Israeli government. The obvious choice, the Palestinian Authority that already rules the West Bank, has been written off as just as bad as Hamas – or worse, actually, because they’d have international legitimacy. Other Palestinian leadership options have been rejected on principle by the far-right parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, which still dream of building Jewish settlements in Gaza. A full Israeli occupation is just as unacceptable to the wider Israeli public, who don’t want to send their kids to die and kill in Gaza for decades to come. 

And so the devil we know remains. Nearly eight months into this war, Hamas is still in charge. If the aim of this war had been to degrade Hamas’s capabilities and destroy the terror infrastructure so that another 7 October  style attack would be impossible in the near future, then Israel’s war could perhaps be judged a qualified success. But that is not the aim that Netanyahu publicly set for the war, and it is not an aim that most Israelis would accept as anything near sufficient. Warplanes, drones and soldiers can weaken Hamas. But the only way to destroy them, is to replace them. So far, Netanyahu doesn’t have a plan for that.