Israel's Rafah invasion aimed at pressuring Hamas in ceasefire talks

Netanyahu hopes to extract even greater concessions from Hamas as his invasion coincides with talks in Cairo, where the group agreed to a deal brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the US

Palestinians travel in an animal-drawn cart as they flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah on May 9, 2024.
REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Palestinians travel in an animal-drawn cart as they flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah on May 9, 2024.

Israel's Rafah invasion aimed at pressuring Hamas in ceasefire talks

Following numerous threats, the Israeli army finally invaded Rafah, the last place in the Gaza Strip its ground forces had not yet entered. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, and extremist right-wing ministers like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir had all pledged that Israel would do so despite its allies urging it not to.

Video shows them hoisting the Israeli flag as Israeli tanks patrol the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the only humanitarian corridor connecting Gaza's 2.3 million residents to the world. This crossing was also the only route for the injured to access medical treatment abroad, given the complete collapse of Gaza’s healthcare system under Israeli bombardment.

Shortly after the Israeli army demanded the immediate evacuation of residents from eastern Rafah, tanks advanced to the crossing, just as residential areas harbouring thousands of displaced families were shelled.

The tanks were then seen crushing an ‘I love Gaza’ sign. Symbolically, it marked the end of Palestinian sovereignty at the crossing, previously managed by the Borders and Crossings Authority under the Hamas-led Ministry of Interior.

As videos of the Israeli army’s control of key symbols circulated, the primary objective of its aggressive land invasion of Rafah became clearer. They moved in despite explicit opposition from the White House, which issued multiple direct and public warnings against any assault on Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

As the army issued its evacuation demands, it also released a map delineating an expanded "safe zone" from the southwest of the Al-Mawasi area, located west of Khan Yunis, to the Nuseirat camp in the north.

They also annexed the central and western areas of Khan Yunis into the "safe zone", to which Palestinians commenced their latest forced displacement amidst a relentless barrage of shelling and bombing by Israeli warplanes.

Palestinian writer and political analyst Mustafa Ibrahim felt that Israel's invasion and occupation of the Rafah border crossing was aimed at pressuring Hamas in negotiations. It coincided with talks in Cairo, where Hamas agreed to the proposal presented. Ibrahim said Israel's invasion of Rafah was to extract even greater concessions from Hamas.

Israeli obstruction of the flow of humanitarian aid and food from the Rafah crossing will lead to widespread hunger, like what happened in north Gaza.

Mustafa Ibrahim, Palestinian analyst

"Since the beginning of the war, Israel has been emphasising the need to control the Philadelphi Corridor and the Rafah crossing, citing the entry of military equipment through the crossing as a pretext," he said.

Despite agreeing with Egypt to build an underground barrier beneath the Philadelphi Corridor to eliminate tunnels, Israel wanted to show the Israeli public "that it has taken control of Rafah, which symbolises the sovereignty of Hamas, potentially leading to the elimination or reduction of its capabilities in controlling its civil sovereignty".

Vital for aid

With its ground operation in Rafah, Israel's aim of seizing control of the Rafah crossing from the Palestinian side became swiftly evident. Ibrahim said this was Netanyahu wanting to project an image of victory, with a rapid assertion of control.

In recent months, the Rafah land crossing has been a lifeline for food and medical aid coming from Egypt to support the huge displaced population. At the start of the conflict, Israel imposed stringent controls on this vital passage.

It prohibited aid trucks from entering through Rafah and even restricted the movement of patients to get treatment. Instead, Israel said all humanitarian aid had to enter through the Nitzana and Kerem Shalom crossings, which it controlled.

Aid trucks are lined up next to a large cement fence near the border with Gaza, which Egypt says will be a 'logistics zone' to receive aid for Gaza.

Here, aid was subject to intensive inspections before it was allowed through, adding layers of complexity and delay to the delivery of crucial supplies.

Israel's significant hindrance of numerous aid deliveries was often implemented without explanation, with restrictions on the delivery of specific fuel types and only allowing a controlled flow of diesel and gas.

This left Palestinians having to burn wooden furniture and leftover tree materials to cook while relying on donkey-drawn carts for transport. It severely limited their access to vegetables, fruits, and flour. Food availability was limited to one or two meals a day.

Dire predictions

Ibrahim said there would be severe consequences now that Israel controlled the Rafah crossing.

"Should Israel obstruct the flow of humanitarian aid and food, it will exacerbate the crisis and lead to widespread hunger, as residents of northern Gaza experienced during the Israeli blockade and ground invasion there for the past several months."

The Ministry of Health in Gaza recently reported that 28 people, mostly children, had died in northern Gaza due to malnourishment and lack of access to medicine. People resorted to grinding animal feed to substitute for flour and bread, eating spoiled vegetables, and drinking contaminated water.

Palestinian children suffering from malnutrition receive treatment at a healthcare centre amid widespread hunger in the southern Gaza Strip on March 4, 2024.

Residents—including displaced families—are being forced to evacuate again, this time from eastern areas, including Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital, which is located in the zone designated by the Israeli army.

On the first day of the invasion, the hospital was damaged by the bombing of nearby properties, leaving hundreds without medical treatment. Al-Najjar Hospital is the sole provider of kidney dialysis services to more than 2,000 patients in Rafah and Khan Yunis.

Medical crisis deepens

Raw sewage now runs through the streets, with treatment plants so badly damaged, and Ibrahim predicted a deteriorating health crisis in Gaza, with the spread of disease among the displaced.

Medical services for patients needing kidney dialysis, cancer treatment, and those suffering from chronic conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes have almost ground to a halt. Patients struggle to get the medication they need. More could die if patients remain unable to travel abroad for treatment.

At a press conference, the Gaza Ministry of Health's coordination department reported that thousands of wounded and sick Palestinians had been denied travel approvals for medical treatment abroad, placing their lives at risk and exacerbating the Strip's health crisis.

Denying medical treatment is likely part of the broader Israeli strategy to press Hamas in ongoing negotiations in Cairo, despite Hamas having already agreed to a negotiated deal. And, as usual, it is the Palestinian people who are left to bear the brunt of the suffering.

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