After strike on Iran, Israel sets its sights back on Rafah offensive

Cairo's worst fears could soon be realised and the mass exodus event it feared months ago could finally come to fruition

Displaced Palestinians line up to fill their containers with water in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on April 19, 2024.
Displaced Palestinians line up to fill their containers with water in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on April 19, 2024.

After strike on Iran, Israel sets its sights back on Rafah offensive

Israel's latest response to Iran's 13 April drone and missile attacks against it gives clues on its next move, which doesn't bode well for the more than 1 million Palestinians crammed into Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city.

Opposed to an Israeli strike on Iran, US President Joe Biden tried to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "take the win" after Iran's strike didn't cause any significant damage to Israel.

But this didn't stop the embattled Israeli premier. He went ahead anyway and struck different sites in Iran on 19 April, including most noticeably in the western Iranian city of Isfahan.

The attacks delivered a message to Iranian leaders that Israel can strike at the heart of Iran whenever and however it wants, thus regaining its image of deterrence and making Iran think twice before striking Israel again.

At the same time, Netanyahu ensured that the Israeli strike did not go too far in dealing a painful blow to Iran—one that Washington worried could lead to an all-out war that it didn't want.

Whether things stop here or continue to escalate, no one knows.

Sights reset to Rafah

But Israel is using the opportunity to turn its sights on Rafah. It has been warning of a looming offensive for quite some time and last week said that it had "set a date" for one, despite US objections.

Rafah—where over 1.4 million northern and central Gaza residents have fled—has become a moshpit of suffering, hunger and death.

A displaced Palestinian stands at the entrance of a tent set up amid the rubble of a building damaged during Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 19, 2024.

A full-scale invasion of a city that now has a population density five times its pre-war levels will surely lead to massive casualties and bloodshed.

Those who will not die under Israeli carpet bombing may attempt to flee to the Egyptian side of the border, only a few kilometres away, and the mass exodus event Cairo feared months ago could finally come to fruition.

If this were to happen, Egypt and Israel's 1979 peace treaty could be jeopardised. To assuage Egyptian concerns, Israel has allowed some Palestinians crammed into Rafah to trickle back up to central and northern Gaza.

Reducing the population density somewhat in Rafah could lessen the deadliness of an Israeli offensive. It also seems that Israel will not carry an all-out assault on the city but rather precision attacks on Hamas positions, hideouts and infrastructure.

Israel hopes that taking these steps will help offset growing criticisms among European states over its brutal military campaign, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians—the majority being women and children. It has also pushed its key ally, Washington, into an embarrassing and isolated position in the international community.

Preparing for the worst

For its part, Egypt has been preparing for the worst. In the past few months, it has done everything possible to prevent an invasion of Rafah and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians into Sinai.

Egypt rallied the international community to pressure Israel to get more aid into Gaza, which it has been restricting. At the same time, it fortified its fence along Gaza's border with Sinai and boosted its troop presence there.

Workers build a large cement fence near the border with Gaza, which Egypt says will be a 'logistics zone' to receive aid for Gaza.

Egyptian army tanks and armoured vehicles are now deployed in different parts of north Sinai after reaching an understanding with Israel. The peace treaty terms actually limit the number of troops Egypt can deploy in the Sinai.

Egypt is convinced that an Israeli invasion of Rafah—even a more discriminate one—will surely spark an exodus of Palestinians at its border, putting Cairo in a very difficult position.

If Palestinians end up in Sinai, this will open a new legal or diplomatic front between Egypt and Israel, where Cairo would be pressing Tel Aviv to allow them to return back to their land and not establish a permanent presence in Egyptian territory.

This would hinge on Israel's plan for Gaza's 'day after', if it has one at all. Any permanent presence of Palestinians in the Sinai runs the risk of turning Egypt into a launching pad for attacks on Israel, which could tear up the peace treaty between the two countries altogether.

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