Analysis | Israel could still force an exodus into Egypt


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Amid a somber Passover in the Holy Land, a chilling reality remains: Israel could soon trigger an exodus into Egypt.

For weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled his intent to launch a full-scale offensive into Rafah, the southern Gazan city that’s now home to more than a million Palestinians seeking safe haven in their war-ravaged territory. Netanyahu and his allies want to wipe out militant group Hamas’s footprint in the city — no matter the skepticism of experts who reckon the Islamist organization is far from defeated or the concerns of foreign diplomats and aid workers who fear the calamities for civilians that would follow the Israeli onslaught.

A major move would trigger the frantic flight of hundreds of thousands of Gazans, many of whom arrived in the city after their homes and neighborhoods elsewhere in Gaza were pulverized by the Israeli military in its post-Oct. 7 war against Hamas. For months, there’s been speculation over whether Egypt would allow tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee to safety in the Sinai desert. Cairo is not keen to admit a refugee influx, given both its own internal security concerns and larger Pan-Arab worries that the Palestinians will be blocked from returning to their homeland like a previous generation of Palestinian refugees.

On Tuesday, Volker Turk, the United Nations’ human rights chief, said leaders around the world “stand united on the imperative of protecting the civilian population trapped in Rafah.”

A mass grave was reportedly found at a hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza, after the April 7 withdrawal of Israeli forces, according to local accounts. (Video: AP)

The Biden administration and the United States’ key European partners have all urged Netanyahu to reconsider an intensive Rafah operation. On Wednesday, in a phone call with the Dutch prime minister, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi said a ground offensive would have “catastrophic consequences” both for the humanitarian situation in war-ravaged Gaza and for broader “regional peace and security.”

On Thursday, amid weeks of back-channel discussions, it appeared that momentum may have revived for some sort of political agreement. An Egyptian delegation will travel to Israel on Friday to discuss “security coordination,” an Israeli official told my colleagues, possibly signaling a resumption of efforts to secure a cease-fire and hostage release deal after months of fitful indirect talks between Israel, Hamas and their intermediaries.

The latest round of diplomacy comes at a moment when it seemed the long-mooted strike on Rafah was becoming inevitable. The tempo of Israeli airstrikes on the city increased this week. Netanyahu’s top spokesperson said Israel would be “moving ahead” with a Rafah operation. On the prime minister’s right flank, extremist ministers in his coalition had already threatened to pull support for his governing mandate if he doesn’t proverbially finish the job.

Netanyahu faced other domestic pressures, too. Mass anti-government protests returned to the streets of Tel Aviv in recent weeks, with demonstrators calling on Netanyahu to prioritize the release of Hamas’s hostages — over his sweeping, stated military objectives — and also demanding fresh elections. The prime minister has abysmal approval ratings in the aftermath of Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 terrorist strike on Israel; a new election would likely force him out of power.

“Netanyahu has zero interest in giving this gift,” wrote Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht, referring to the prime minister allowing an election that he would likely lose. “He depicts the very word ‘election’ as criminal and unpatriotic. And even if he is forced to promise to hold one, nobody will believe him.”

Meanwhile, the picture in Gaza remains bleak. If not into Egypt, Rafah’s residents may be forced by an Israeli offensive to flee to other areas of the territory where Israel has already blazed a trail of destruction. In Gaza’s north, U.S. officials and aid groups believe famine conditions may already prevail, though a surge in humanitarian aid in recent days has generated a degree of optimism.

But the developments could mark a prelude to an offensive. “Some analysts see both the increased military activity and the humanitarian blitz, as well as signs of new tent cities in central Gaza, as precursors to an invasion of Rafah,” my colleagues reported.

Aid organizations with access to Gaza claim that other parts of the territory are ill-equipped for an influx from Rafah. Sacha Myers, media manager for Save the Children, described the scene in the city of Khan Younis, north of Rafah, which a host of humanitarian officials describe as largely destroyed.

“I’ve been to a lot of war zones and disasters, but I’ve never been in a situation where as far as the eye can see, every building is rubble,” Myers said in an email statement. “In some conflicts, you will see devastation, but there are gaps between damage and buildings still standing. Here — you turn 360 degrees — every single building is either severely damaged or rubble on the ground. And not just one or two streets, but dozens of streets.”

A letter addressed to President Biden and signed by the heads of more than 50 international humanitarian nonprofits, including CARE and the International Rescue Committee, urged the White House to do more to protect Palestinian lives and salvage a flagging, beleaguered humanitarian effort. It warned that an invasion of Rafah, as the current center for the emergency international humanitarian response structure in Gaza and site of crucial warehouses and distribution centers, would be a blow to relief efforts in the territory.

“It is our assessment that if an offensive occurs and the aid architecture collapses across the Gaza Strip, there is no credible or executable humanitarian plan to prevent a famine affecting hundreds of thousands of people,” the letter read.

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