What happens if Israel does not go into Rafah? Look at Afghanistan

Article published in The Jewish Chronicle, 3 April 2024. © Richard Kemp

There is no doubting Israel’s spectacular military success so far in Gaza. I have been on the ground inside the Strip several times since the war began, and have seen first hand the remarkable combat actions of the IDF.

They have all but taken apart Hamas as a coherent fighting organisation, while doing everything in their power to minimise civilian casualties and working round the clock to get humanitarian aid to the Gazan population, which I have also witnessed.

Despite all this, the IDF has not yet accomplished its mission in Gaza: to destroy Hamas’s ability to threaten Israel and govern the Gaza Strip and to rescue the hostages. To achieve that, the IDF must launch a major offensive against the four Hamas battalions in Rafah. Focused now on its own survival, Hamas is determined to prevent that from happening and increasingly the international community seems intent on helping them.

That was underlined this week when the UN Security Council demanded a ceasefire in Gaza, which Britain supported and the US failed to veto. That historically shameful resolution was the culmination of a decades-long propaganda campaign under which Israel is an illegitimate entity. As the narrative goes, whatever is done to Israel, including the October 7 massacre, it had it coming; and whatever Israel does in its own defence, including finishing off Hamas in Rafah, it is wrong and uniquely evil.

Many supposed military experts say Israel should not mount an offensive in Rafah. I have not heard any of them put forward a single viable alternative. The White House is apparently recommending a strategy based on pinpoint, clinical strikes into the city, targeting Hamas leaders. Their template seems to be US special forces operations in Afghanistan, and we all know how that ultimately worked out. The Taliban survived, gained strength and eventually re-conquered the country. Under Taliban rule, Isis in Afghanistan has launched multiple global terrorist attacks including last week’s massacre in Moscow, according to US intelligence. A salutary lesson for those who think Israel does not need to finish off Hamas in Gaza.

In any case, in a heavily defended area like Rafah, no military operations can be ‘clinical’. In February, Operation Golden Hand showed us the necessity for overwhelming violence to enable special forces to extricate a single Israeli hostage from Rafah. The rescue mission had to be backed up by air strikes which reportedly killed dozens of people to enable the withdrawal of the hostage and the rescuers. Left intact, the Hamas battalions in Rafah will fight furiously against any ‘pinpoint’ raids, which will not achieve the level of surprise of Operation Golden Hand if they become part of a series of such operations.

Only once they have destroyed the fighting integrity of those four battalions will the IDF be in a position to exercise decisive control over the city and ultimately eliminate Hamas. The way this might work is unfolding now in the north of Gaza where the IDF has been conducting a comparatively low level but very successful operation against Hamas and Islamic Jihad at the Shifa Hospital. In recent days over 100 terrorists have been killed and hundreds captured, a major achievement reportedly with no civilian casualties inflicted by the IDF. But that would not have been possible before the Hamas battalions had been taken to pieces in the previous major offensive in the area.

Much of the estimated 1.4 million population of Rafah will have to be evacuated before the IDF begins a major offensive – and the IDF have planned for this. It is worth noting that the international community, including the UN, though always eager to parade their humanitarian concerns, have been deliberately frustrating Israeli plans for that. Even before the ground war began, Israel identified Al-Mawasi, a 16 sq km coastal area of south-west Gaza, as a humanitarian area. It could have housed more than 2 million Gazans in relative safety, with temporary accommodation, supplies and field hospitals. But the UN and other aid agencies refused to establish this safe zone which could have been done with the assistance of Egypt, saving many lives. Nor has any international pressure been applied to Egypt to open its border to allow Gazans refuge in Sinai, which could also have been established as a temporary safe zone. I know of no other recent conflict where a neighbouring country has not allowed civilians to gain safety inside their borders, or even been pressured by the international community to do so. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the UN and other players would prefer to see Israel fail in Gaza than to save human life. In other words, like Hamas, they seem to be weaponising civilians against Israel.

If international pressure succeeds in stopping a major offensive in Rafah there is another option – although not necessarily a good one. That is for the IDF to construct a strong defensive line to the north-east of Rafah, parallel with the Egyptian border and running from the coast to the Israeli border. Rafah would be isolated from the rest of the Gaza Strip with all movement through that line controlled by the IDF. The IDF could launch ground and air operations into Rafah to counter threats emanating from there but Rafah would in effect become Egypt’s problem. There are of course many downsides to this, not least that some of the surviving hostages would remain in Rafah.

According to War Cabinet member and former defence minister Benny Gantz, ‘Ending the war without clearing out Rafah is like sending a firefighter to extinguish 80 per cent of the fire.’ The whole of the fire must be put out and the remaining embers damped down by long-term IDF security operations if Gaza is to be demilitarised so that it can no longer threaten Israel.

There is another reason why Israel must achieve total victory in Gaza. The defeat of Hamas may well reduce the need for a major war in Lebanon if Hezbollah is deterred by the destruction of its fellow Iranian proxies in Gaza – for the time being at least. And if the West doesn’t care much about Israel’s security, a victory for Hamas in Gaza will certainly energise the global jihadist threat. Even if for no other reason, our countries should give their full backing to Israel’s operation in Rafah.