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The U.S.-Israel Spat Over Rafah Is a Distraction

For a few months now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly invoked the name of the Gaza Strip’s southernmost city: Rafah. His government has relentlessly threatened Hamas—and promised its own public—that it will soon send ground troops into the only part of Gaza that Israel has yet to invade. Netanyahu dangles the threat in almost every meeting and press conference, without mentioning that the manpower and logistics required to both recruit the required IDF troops and evacuate the civilian population would take weeks to organize. That process has yet to begin.

But another battle is well under way. The U.S. has pushed back firmly at the Rafah plan, even as it continues to support Israel’s war effort. With well over 1 million internally displaced Palestinians sheltering in Rafah, a ground operation is certain to exacerbate the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza. The threat of mass casualties, and of desperate Palestinians trying to flee into Egypt, looms large. Both Egypt and the U.S. have signaled their strong opposition to such a scenario, which could further destabilize the region. The U.S. has been insisting that Israel find alternatives, keep such an operation limited, and take steps to protect the civilian population. In a virtual meeting this week, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken cast serious doubt on Israel’s ability to evacuate and protect Palestinians in Rafah.

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Israel makes a military argument, calling a Rafah operation necessary to defeat Hamas’s four remaining battalions, and other combatants who have fled there; destroy Hamas’s military infrastructure; and assume control of the border between Egypt and Gaza to prevent weapons smuggling. Netanyahu expressly told Blinken last month that Israel will go into Rafah with or without U.S. approval. While we don’t know what is in Netanyahu’s head, we do know that Israel cannot wage this war without U.S. backing. And, again, that a Rafah operation can’t happen anytime soon for logistical reasons.

Netanyahu’s threats of an impending ground operation are thus just that, a threat—though one that could serve several purposes. First, by pressuring Hamas, it increases Israel’s leverage in negotiations toward a hostage deal (though this does not appear to have worked). The threat is also a way for Netanyahu to pander to his base, asserting that Israel will operate in Gaza however it wishes, even in the face of admonitions from Washington. It could also be a ploy by Netanyahu to argue, further down the road, that the reason Israel wasn’t able to defeat Hamas entirely was U.S. opposition to a major ground invasion in Rafah.

Spotlighting Rafah also serves one more purpose. Intentionally or not, keeping international attention fixed on southern Gaza draws attention away from the catastrophic situation unfolding in northern Gaza, where Palestinians face mass starvation, and where breakdowns in order display the failings (or features) of Israel’s war strategy. Israeli leaders insist that they cannot win the war without defeating what remains of Hamas in Rafah. But doing so will still leave many thousands of Hamas fighters intact, and the aftermath could look a lot like what is already happening in northern Gaza, just worse. That’s because the main challenge Israel faces is not just taking apart Hamas’s military capacities but also (and primarily) its governance—and figuring out what to replace it with.

The million-dollar question Israeli leaders have been unable to answer: Who will govern Gaza? Israel has said it will not occupy Gaza after the war, that Hamas cannot remain, and that the current Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, cannot take over either.

The physical reality is that Israel has cut the strip in half, dividing north from south. It has occupied and largely depopulated the north, and created a buffer zone along the border with Israel on 16% of Gaza’s territory. Israeli forces have had control of northern Gaza for months, yet must conduct repeated operations to prevent Hamas from reasserting itself. Israel must thwart ambushes and attacks on its troops that the IDF has said it expects to continue in the form of guerrilla warfare throughout the Strip for years to come. Yet it also, and mainly, must remove Hamas as an administrative entity that imposes and preserves public order and oversees the distribution of humanitarian aid. This appears far from achievable at this point, six months in.

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Then Israel has to find something to take its place. The breakdown of Hamas’s governing authority, along with Israel’s efforts to remove UNRWA, the U.N. agency mandated to serve Palestinian refugees, has created a security and logistics vacuum for which Israel—along with the U.S., Arab states, and other interested parties—has yet to locate or build a replacement. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Israeli strike on the World Central Kitchen convoy that killed seven aid workers has led the WCF—one of the groups Israel was looking to fill the vacuum—to pause their services. Amid this void, the north is stalked by mass starvation. A recent Integrated Food Security Phase Classification report stated that a third of Gazans face acute food insecurity. In northern Gaza, that number reaches 55%.

The Biden Administration is now scrambling to provide a response to the challenges to humanitarian aid delivery. Those efforts would be severely hampered by an Israeli ground operation in Rafah—the threat of which must not be allowed to distract from the more urgent emergency: Staving off the famine that has begun to grip the north, in part because of Israel’s inability to answer the question of who, if not Hamas, will rule the Strip.

Contact us at letters@time.com.