World is not prepared for what will happen in Rafah

World is not prepared for what will happen in Rafah

Palestinians inspect the destruction following overnight Israeli strikes on Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. May 6, 2024 (File/AFP)
Palestinians inspect the destruction following overnight Israeli strikes on Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. May 6, 2024 (File/AFP)
Short Url

In Detroit, anti-Palestinian hate mobs chanted “Rafah, Rafah, here we come.” American and other Western media outlets have been obsessed in recent days with the burgeoning array of university campus sit-ins spreading not just across the US, but in Europe too. Debates about the protests, the intentions of the protesters, the counter-protesters and the actions of the police dominate the headlines. The casual observer could comfortably forget what this was all about.

The real story remains what is happening on the ground in Gaza. Everything else is a sideshow to the main event, but many in the pro-genocide camp would love the focus to be on these sideshows.

The story is not about societies that have universities (all the ones in Gaza, Israel has destroyed), those who have futures to risk and the basic comforts of life. It is about those in Gaza facing the next chapter of Israel’s genocidal campaign. Above all, it is about the fate of the 1.5 million displaced Palestinians crammed into ever-shrinking, overcrowded, stinking hellholes in Rafah in southern Gaza. Some of them have been displaced seven times. It is about the 600,000 children stuck there, many now orphaned, who are also being starved and dehydrated to death.

The town of Rafah has seen its fair share of horrors over the years. The first Israeli massacre there took place during its invasion and occupation of Gaza in 1956. Israeli forces rounded up men heading toward an UNRWA school in Rafah refugee camp and opened fire. The UN agency found that 111 were killed, of whom 103 were refugees.

Rafah is the last built-up area of Gaza Israel has yet to reduce to rubble. It used to have a population of no more than 270,000, but that has now multiplied at least fivefold. When it is pancaked, what will be left of Gaza, given that 70 percent of the civilian infrastructure has already been destroyed?

The Palestinians in Gaza know the pain and the horror is almost certainly coming — they just do not know when

Chris Doyle

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification has warned that any invasion of Rafah would push even more Palestinians into famine. As it gets hotter, disease becomes an ever greater threat, not least given the unsanitary conditions being suffered by a malnourished, exhausted population with compromised immune systems. Mosquitoes, flies and vermin are also thriving, aiding the spread of disease. And garbage has accumulated to add to the threat.

Could there be a deal? The answer appears to be that both sides are playing games. Any reasonable assessment would be that both leaderships are lukewarm at best toward any deal and are just keen that their foe is blamed, not them. The reality is that, whatever the contents of any deal, Israeli forces will unleash further hell on Rafah at some stage.

Palestinians corralled into Rafah are being mentally tortured. For three months, they have watched the international debate over whether Israel will or will not invade. They know the pain and the horror is almost certainly coming — they just do not know when. Many on the outside do not realize that, even though there has not been a ground invasion, Israel has still been busy bombing Rafah.

The lucky ones have been able to raise the funds to pay the exorbitant exit fees from Gaza into Egypt, which are currently about $5,000 per adult.

The US, from President Joe Biden downward, together with other Israeli allies, have all been warning against a Rafah invasion. At first this was a demand — Israel must not go in. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote: “The people in Gaza cannot disappear into thin air.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have got his way with his usual brand of obstinate defiance. Recent statements from the US administration emphasize the need for Israel to protect civilians and run their invasion plans by the White House prior to the start.

Netanyahu has made it crystal clear: Israel will invade Rafah. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich wants not just an invasion but Rafah’s annihilation — a fate he expects for all of Gaza.

Will it work? Assassinating Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif will not make Israel any safer. As Israel’s furious bombing of Gaza enters its eighth month, it is clear that Hamas and its ilk do not have a recruitment challenge or a funding problem. Netanyahu’s actions have given Hamas added longevity. It may even become more radical.

Claims that an invasion will not be another humanitarian catastrophe are in defiance of the reality on the ground

Chris Doyle

As for the hostages, however many remain, the invasion of Rafah will be lucky to secure the release of any of them. It will almost certainly lead to their terrible demise.

Claims that it will not be another humanitarian catastrophe are in defiance of the reality on the ground. Every humanitarian agency has stated clearly and repeatedly that there are no safe spaces left in Gaza. None. Palestinians are stuck. Egypt, for fear of facing a refugee crisis it can ill afford, will not let Palestinians flee into the Sinai en masse. Going north inside Gaza is perilous and raises the question of where to. The Strip is laced with dangerous buildings and unexploded ordnance. Many simply cannot move because they are too young, too old or because they are among the tens of thousands to have been injured already.

Israel has reportedly organized a whole series of checkpoints for people to go through if they want to get out of Rafah. If a Palestinian is of fighting age, whatever the Israeli army considers that to be, they will not be allowed out. So, all young Palestinian males are sentenced regardless of whether they are combatants or civilians.

A full-frontal assault on Rafah would also cut off the primary lifeline for all Gazans, as this is where the insufficient aid that does get in enters the Strip. Israeli officials moan at what they see as an American veto over their plans for Rafah. Even US officials do not appear convinced the Israeli authorities have a plan that truly mitigates against the worst impact of any ground invasion on Palestinian civilians.

What will happen to Rafah will be little different to what happened to Gaza City, Deir Al-Balah and Khan Younis. Israel will render it uninhabitable. Expecting anything else is naive given the experience of the last seven months.

The stark reality is that the world is not prepared for what will happen in Rafah. Officials from donor states are fearful about being seen to prepare for an eventuality they have said must not happen. Proper preparation makes it easier for Israel to conduct an invasion. But the same officials are equally fearful they will be depicted as incompetent for not preparing for this undesired outcome. It is a choice between being seen as complicit or incompetent.

A failure to stop an Israeli slaughter in Rafah will also bury what is left of the international rules-based order and international law. It will highlight the US’ complicity in such crimes and Israel’s contempt for Palestinian life. It will make any International Criminal Court warrants issued against Israeli leaders even more deserved than they already are.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. X: @Doylech
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view