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Netanyahu buys time in Rafah, balances Israel's far right and Biden's 'red lines'

As the Israeli military steps up its eastern Rafah operation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will soon have to decide whether to cross the American red line: a full-scale invasion of the Gazan city.
Smoke rises over Gaza as an Israeli tank takes position along the border with the Gaza Strip, southern Israel, May 13, 2024.

TEL AVIV — As Israel marked its 76th Independence Day on Tuesday, bitterly marred by the catastrophic Oct. 7 blow to its security and independence, memories surfaced of the war waged by the fledgling state against Arab armies and militias in 1948. Vastly outnumbered, the Haganah pre-state military force unveiled a secret weapon, the Davidka mortar. The 3-inch mortar proved highly ineffective, causing more harm than good. Nonetheless, its memorable battlefield performance was achieved by the deafening noise it made when fired. 

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operation underway in Rafah is having a similar effect even before troops have entered the southern Gaza town. As the Israeli military encircles the city from the east, on Gaza’s border with Egypt, the political echelon is delaying its decision on how the operation should continue. For the moment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not issued an order to take over the city, in what gradually appears as an attempt to buy time vis-a-vis American pressures to ditch the idea of a large-scale operation. 

"Israel has yet to cross the red lines drawn up by the Americans," a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "The forces are operating in the periphery, around the city, in areas that are not densely populated, and no order has yet been given to advance into the city." 

However, the highly publicized, noisy preparations for such a move, which Israel has depicted as the pinnacle of its efforts to crush the final bastion of Hamas, have already produced a significant effect. Between 250,000 and 450,000 Palestinian residents of Rafah and refugees sheltering there are estimated to have left in recent days as an Israeli division deployed around the town. 

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