Skip to main content

As it expands operations, Israel weighs Rafah options, looks to Egypt

Israel's military has seized the Rafah crossing, but some doubt the move's significance without control of the entire Gaza border.
Israeli army soldiers huddle together before a main battle tank positioned in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 9, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the Hamas movement. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

As the Israeli military continues to fight in eastern Rafah, the government will soon have to decide on its next step, namely, for how long and to what geographical extent its forces will continue to fight in southern Gaza.

Reports on Friday revealed that the Israeli security cabinet had authorized the military to expand operations in eastern Rafah, but no decision had been made on extending the assault to all of Rafah. Such a decision would be crossing the red line declared by US President Joe Biden.

US concerned, urges more 'discreet' ways

Asked about the expansion, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said on Friday this scope still does not constitute a large operation. Kirby said the United States "wouldn’t go so far as to say” that Israel’s military movements over the last 24 hours connote a large-scale ground operation, but he said it is watching “with concern.” 

But the White House official appeared more understanding of the Israeli military goal to "finish" Hamas despite concerns over the humanitarian situation. “We have never ever, ever told them that they can’t try to finish off the Hamas battalions that are in Rafah. We’ve never told them they can’t operate in Rafah," he said. 

"What we’ve told them is that the way they do it matters, and that we won’t support a major ground operation and … smashing into Rafah with, you know, multiple divisions of forces in a ham-fisted, indiscriminate way.”

Kirby added that the United States would prefer more covert tactics. "We believe there’s better ways to do that, to eliminate that threat, as you put it. We believe there’s more discreet, more targeted, more careful ways to do it. And we are eagerly awaiting every opportunity we have to communicate those alternatives to the Israelis. We’ve already done that in a number of settings. We look forward to doing it in the future," he said. 

On Monday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) instructed residents of eastern Rafah neighborhoods and displaced Palestinians sheltering in the area to move to a "humanitarian zone" along the Gaza coast near Khan Younis. At least 110,000 people have reportedly fled the area so far, according to the United Nations.

Four Hamas battalions are said to be stationed in the Rafah area, but it is unclear how many of them are currently in the eastern part of the city. The Israeli military said on Friday that the Givati Brigade had discovered several tunnel shafts and that soldiers from the 410th Brigade had engaged with and eliminated several Hamas assailant cells. Israeli forces have also taken control of the north-south route dividing east and west Rafah. Residents of the area have reported Israeli tanks on the road.

For the moment, it appears that Hamas has chosen to minimize engaging with the IDF in Rafah. Haaretz reported that such a strategy had to an extent become evident in recent days in Khan Younis, where the group employed guerrilla tactics. Its fighters hid in tunnels and only surfaced in small groups to attack Israeli troops. 

Israel’s options

The initial goal of the limited operation in eastern Rafah, as declared by the Israeli military, was to take over control of the Rafah crossing point with Egypt to prevent the smuggling of arms into the enclave, deny Hamas the income generated from taxing trucks entering with humanitarian aid, and shutter a symbol of Hamas' governance of Gaza. The security cabinet's decision to continue fighting in Rafah, moving deeper into the city, could still point to one of two possibilities — either Israel plans to remain within the parameters of a limited operation, or it plans to launch the large-scale operation Biden has warned against.

The first option would result in a few more days of fighting, until eastern Rafah, smaller and less populated than other areas of the city, is under Israeli control. The Israeli military believes that most of the smuggling tunnels are to the west of the Rafah crossing at the Philadelphi Corridor, which runs along the Gaza-Egypt border. There is little hope of the current limited operation leading to a freeing of hostages. Still, as long as Israel maintains the current status quo in Rafah, it can possibly avoid the Biden administration making good on its threat to halt the delivery of offensive arms. It would also mean not ordering more people to flee the area.

The second option, a large-scale operation, would require deploying many more troops. Four Israeli soldiers were killed Friday in northern Gaza, where the IDF had conducted extensive operations earlier in the war. With tensions still high on the border with Lebanon, the IDF might have to call up more reserve units for duty.

Agreement with Egypt on border zone

Ofer Shela, a senior researcher at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies and former member of the Knesset (Yesh Atid) Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Al-Monitor that although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has portrayed taking Rafah as a strategic turning point in the war, it is not the be-all-and-end-all for militarily defeating Hamas. 

"Netanyahu turned Rafah into a symbol, not only vis-à-vis the Americans and the international community, but also inside Israel," Shelah said. "The military operation now taking place there is very limited. I do not think that it is in Israel’s interest to expand that operation, because this would clearly mean a serious confrontation with the Biden administration and with other regional players, as it would require the displacement of more than a million people."

Shelah does not view taking Rafah as critical to the goals of the war." What is important," he said "is controlling the Gaza border with Egypt, or more exactly the Philadelphi Corridor, which is the 14-kilometer-long stretch of land from the trilateral Israel-Gaza-Egypt border point to the Mediterranean Sea. This border must be closed both above ground and underground, so that Hamas cannot rearm itself and get stronger. But this should be achieved through a diplomatic understanding between Israel and Egypt, backed by the Americans."

Shelah noted that for the moment, the Israeli military only controls part of this area, including the Rafah crossing point itself. "In order to control all of it, we would need to reach an agreement with the Egyptians, including the displacement of some of the population living near the border."

Shelah calls not only for an agreement with Egypt, but also for a comprehensive regional deal, with American involvement, that will include normalization with Saudi Arabia and a solution for the day after in Gaza.

A specialist on military strategy, Shelah says that the elimination of Hamas’ four Rafah battalions is not the key to winning the war.

"The IDF cannot aspire to a victory in the form of killing the last Hamas militant in the last Hamas tunnel," he said. "What we need is to create an alternative that will prevent Hamas from being the strong civilian ruler of Gaza and taking advantage of the situation to rearm itself."

Shelah added, "Even the IDF is no longer buying the scenario depicted by Netanyahu. In fact, in the past three months, it significantly reduced its deployments and fighting in the Strip."

In Shelah’s opinion, even Israel taking control of the Rafah crossing is symbolic and of little military meaning. "If you do not control the whole Gaza-Egypt border, then taking over only one part is useless," he said. 

Jared Szuba in Washington, DC, contributed to this report.