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Why is Rafah important in the Israel-Gaza war? US urges Israel to drop plans for ground offensive

Israel has signalled that a ground invasion will take place in Rafah  (AP)
Israel has signalled that a ground invasion will take place in Rafah (AP)

The US is urging Israel to drop plans for an imminent Rafah ground offensive where more than 1.5 million displaced Gazans are currently sheltering.

The Biden administration has proposed a UN security council resolution and called for a temporary ceasefire to prevent the planned attack in southern Gaza.

The draft resolution text is the first time the US has explicitly backed a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict, and states that a temporary truce should begin “as soon as practicable”, leaving some room for manoeuvre by the Israeli government.

The text is being offered by the Biden administration as an alternative to an Algerian draft resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire that is due to be debated on Tuesday.

According to reports, the US draft resolution says the security council “determines that under current circumstances a major ground offensive into Rafah would result in further harm to civilians and their further displacement including potentially into neighbouring countries, which would have serious implications for regional peace and security, and therefore underscores that such a major ground offensive should not proceed under current circumstances”.

The Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz warned last week that the threatened ground invasion will continue if the hostages are not released by Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

Mr Gantz said on Sunday: "The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, to include the Rafah area.

“We will do so in a coordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with our American and Egyptian partners to minimise civilian casualties.

“To those saying the price [of an offensive] is too high, I say this very clearly: Hamas has a choice – they can surrender, release the hostages, and the citizens of Gaza will be able to celebrate the holy holiday of Ramadan.”

Ramadan falls on March 10 this year. The Israeli government has not confirmed when troops will enter Rafah.

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz warns the ground invasion of Rafah will continue if the hostages are not released by Ramadan (AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz warns the ground invasion of Rafah will continue if the hostages are not released by Ramadan (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Gantz’s warning came as the Gaza health ministry said Gaza’s second main hospital was "completely out of service" after Israeli forces raided it last week.

Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis was one of the last functioning hospitals in the Gaza Strip on February 18 but only four medics staffed it. The Israeli military had raided the hospital on February 15.

Rafah was previously home to 270,000 people. However, since Israel’s war with Hamas began in October, the population has hugely increased. Many displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in makeshift tents.

Following an intense four-month military campaign, Israel has continuously forced Palestinian civilians toward the city, deeming it a “safe zone”. However, Israel’s strikes have killed more than 100 Palestinians there and prompted international alarm about an imminent ground offensive.

Rafah is located along the border of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and is currently one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

Despite mounting concern for the city’s inhabitants, of whom 600,000 are reportedly children, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appears determined to push ahead with the offensive.

Palestinian civilians reportedly have nowhere left to go, and Israel has so far proposed no evacuation plan to help families desperately trying to escape the conflict.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah (AP)
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah (AP)

Why is Rafah important?

Located next to Egypt, Rafah was previously one of the last borders in operation in the Occupied Palestinian territories and the only way that Palestinians could leave the Gaza Strip. The border remains tentatively closed, meaning most Palestinians cannot leave and most humanitarian aid cannot get in.

Israel controls all sea and other land borders across the Palestinian Territories. Reports have shown Israeli protesters attempting to block humanitarian aid passing into Gaza.

Rafah is now one of the last major cities in which Israeli forces are yet to enter as part of their four-month “operation” to eradicate Hamas fighters. However, that is expected to change very soon.

The city has transformed into a mass refugee camp, with more than a million distressed people fleeing other parts of the Gaza Strip to seek refuge from intense Israeli bombing.

More than 28,064 Palestinians have been killed as a result of Israel’s military operation in the last four months, according to the health ministry. This was Israel’s response to the killing of 1,200 Israelis in an attack launched by Hamas on 7 October.

Shelling across Rafah has already turned many buildings into rubble, killing hundreds of Palestinians.

Food and clean water remain scarce, prompting major concerns about a mounting regional humanitarian crisis.

Wounded Palestinian girl Somay al-Najar comforts her brother Yamen (AFP via Getty Images)
Wounded Palestinian girl Somay al-Najar comforts her brother Yamen (AFP via Getty Images)

All eyes are now on Rafah, as Mr Netanyahu has vowed to press on with a ground offensive – despite international condemnation of such a move. US President Joe Biden has joined calls to halt a Rafah offensive.

UN human rights chief Volker Türk has warned that Israel’s offensive in Rafah would be "terrifying, given the prospect that an extremely high number of civilians, again mostly children and women, will likely be killed and injured".

What happens in Rafah is important as it may demonstrate how far Israel is prepared to go in ignoring calls from the international community. A ground offensive in Rafah may also lead to further instability in the Middle East and threaten key regional peace agreements.

Having so far failed to keep Palestinian civilians safe, Israel is in breach of International Court of Justice orders, some reports have claimed.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (AP)
Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (AP)

Is Rafah a safe zone?

Rafah was previously considered a safe zone in the Gaza Strip and displaced Palestinians had been told by Israel to head south towards it.

In December, for example, Israel reportedly dropped leaflets over civilian homes in Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip, saying: “To the residents of the towns of Al-Qarara, Khuza’a, Abasan, and Bani Suhaila, you must evacuate immediately and go to shelters in the Rafah area.”

Most Palestinians, having witnessed attacks carried out in other parts of Gaza, adhered to the guidance and fled there.

The safety of Rafah is now in question because Mr Netanyahu has rejected calls for a ceasefire and vowed to achieve “total victory” through a ground offensive. This has prompted concerns for the safety of thousands sheltering in tents and among destroyed buildings.

“We’re going to do it. We’re going to get the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah, which is the last bastion, but we’re going to do it,” he said.

The Israeli leader also said: "We're going to do it while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave."

Will Egypt let Palestinians in?

Analysts have suggested that by pushing Palestinians south, Israel could eventually aim to force them to leave Gaza and enter Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

An Israeli concept paper released on October 8, 2023, suggested as much, detailing plans to transfer the population of the Gaza Strip into Egypt.

However, Egyptian officials are against the idea of allowing Palestinians into the arid Sinai desert. They argue that Israel will never allow Palestinian people to return to their land – further prompting instability in the Middle East.

However, Egypt is reportedly building a walled camp in the Sinai Peninsula to receive displaced Palestinians fleeing Gaza.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Egypt was constructing an “eight-square-mile walled enclosure” on its side of the border with Gaza.

The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights (SFHR) has posted photos and videos of construction under way around the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing.

The SFHR said the enclosure was intended to house the refugees in case of a mass exodus. However, the governor of North Sinai, Mohamed Shousha, rejected the claims that Egypt was developing "an isolated area in Sinai" for refugees.