February 17, 2024 | The Washington Times

Deceptive normalcy: A border town with a front-row seat to the Gaza carnage

Netanyahu insists Rafah fight will proceed as international pressure mounts
February 17, 2024 | The Washington Times

Deceptive normalcy: A border town with a front-row seat to the Gaza carnage

Netanyahu insists Rafah fight will proceed as international pressure mounts

The border of Gaza today is green, and farm equipment tills the fields on Israel’s side.

The pastoral scene is a stark change from four months ago after Hamas militants’ rampaging assault filled many of the Jewish communities with death and devastation and left the area deserted.

The sense of unease and foreboding will be more difficult to extinguish. From Kibbutz Magen, one can clearly see Rafah.

The Gaza city along the Egyptian border is the focal point for a looming Israeli offensive and a frantic international diplomatic effort to head off more Palestinian civilian deaths, more bloodshed on both sides and more weeks and months of fighting.

Last week, a dozen Israel Defense Forces helicopters could be seen hovering along the border. One of them, an Apache, fired a missile from high in the air toward a building in Gaza. The strike was just the latest evidence of continued fighting not just in Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have taken refuge, but also in Khan Younis, the larger city in the north of the densely populated enclave.

Despite intense efforts by the Biden administration to forge a cease-fire and forestall the coming battle, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear again Saturday that the mission will continue as long as Hamas resists and wields power inside Gaza.

“Those who want to prevent us from operating in Rafah are essentially telling us: ‘Lose the war.’ I won’t let that happen,” Mr. Netanyahu told a Saturday evening press conference in Jerusalem. “We won’t capitulate to any pressure.”

Israeli strikes across Gaza killed at least 18 people overnight into Sunday, including at least six people in Rafah, according to medics and witnesses, The Associated Press reported.

The Israeli leader said the Rafah offensive would commence in earnest after civilians have an opportunity to evacuate. He said he had told President Biden the offensive was inevitable.

“There is no alternative to total victory,” he said. “And there is no way to achieve total victory without destroying those battalions in Rafah, and we will do so.”

Pressure on the Netanyahu government was building. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the other foreign ministers of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations issued a statement Saturday expressing concern about a catastrophe in Rafah.

The ministers “called for urgent action to address the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Gaza, particularly the plight of 1.5 million civilians sheltering in Rafah and they expressed deep concern for the potentially devastating consequences on the civilian population of Israel’s further full-scale military operation in that area,” according to a statement released by Italy, which currently chairs the group.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Sunday that Washington was prepared to veto a Security Council resolution circulated by Algeria. The resolution calls for an immediate Gaza cease-fire, unhindered aid flows to trapped Palestinian civilians and a repudiation of any plan to relocate large numbers of Palestinians out of the enclave. The U.S. envoy said the proposal would be counterproductive given the state of negotiations.

“It is critical that other parties give this process the best odds of succeeding rather than push measures that put it — and the opportunity for an enduring resolution of hostilities — in jeopardy,” she said.

A deceptive normalcy

The apparent normalcy on the Israeli side of the border is deceptive. At Kibbutz Magen, about 10 miles from the Egyptian border and 2 miles from the Gaza border, most residents have been unable to return to their homes since Oct.7. They live in hotels at the Dead Sea.

On a hill within the community, the Gaza border villages of Khirbat Ikhza’a and Khuza are visible in the distance. It was from those two towns that thousands of Hamas fighters breached the fence between Gaza and Israel and attacked communities like Magen.

Magen was spared a massacre because its local security team responded quickly and eliminated two dozen attackers from Gaza. The areas along the border are now under IDF control, even as fighting rages across the Gaza Strip.

Hamas units are putting up resistance in the south. Top commanders, such as local Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar, remain at large, but IDF officials say Hamas forces have been defeated in most of Khan Younis.

Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, the IDF commanding officer of the Southern Command, gave a situational assessment late last week at the Nasser Hospital complex in Khan Younis. The hospital was the center of IDF activities during the week.

“The operation here in the city of Khan Yunis, in the heart of the city at the Nasser Hospital, is very significant,” the general said, “a precise, high-quality, focused operation, which so far has helped us apprehend dozens of terrorists, including murderous terrorists inside the hospital.”

The operation at the hospital was complex because 7,000 Palestinians were sheltering in the area, according to Israel’s Ministry of Defense. Israeli commanders said they detained more than 100 suspected militants in the operation, including 20 who it says participated in the Oct. 7 attack. The military justified the assault as a search for the remains of hostages inside the facility and insisted that Israeli forces were not targeting doctors or patients.

The Hamas force bracing for Israel’s assault in Rafah will be weakened after months of fighting. When the war began, Hamas had up to 30,000 fighters arranged in 24 battalions. More than half were in northern Gaza, where the IDF decimated them in fighting in November.

On Friday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said his office estimated 18 of the battalions — more than two-thirds — had been “dismantled.” That leaves Hamas with only six major units left in Gaza, most of them in Rafah.

The swollen Rafah population and the complication of some 100 Israeli and foreign national hostages still held by Hamas make the coming campaign the most challenging of the war. Outside experts question some Israeli claims about the extent to which the fighting has damaged Hamas’ operational control.

“We are thoroughly planning future operations in Rafah, which is a significant Hamas stronghold,” Mr. Gallant said. “Rafah is the next Hamas center of gravity.”

Riots were reported Friday inside Rafah. Egypt, which has adamantly refused to allow a massive wave of Palestinian refugees to flee across the border into the Sinai Peninsula, has been reinforcing its border while constructing a giant, walled enclave to detain those trying to escape the Gaza fighting.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, speaking at the Munich Security Conference this weekend in Germany, reiterated that the full-scale displacement of Gaza Palestinians to his country was unacceptable, but he hinted that even Cairo was not willing to stomach a wholesale killing of civilians as Israel and Hamas fighters battle in Rafah’s streets.

“It is not our intention to provide any safe areas or facilities, but if this is necessary, we will deal with the humanity that is necessary,” Mr. Shoukry told the gathering.

Mr. Gallant sought to reassure Egypt by saying Israel “has no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt. We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region as well as an important partner.”

That pledge raises the stakes and the complications for Israeli military commanders. Moving into Rafah will require evacuating most of the civilians as Israel has done elsewhere during operations.

Israel has also shifted its strategy slightly in Gaza. In northern Gaza, the IDF carried out heavy airstrikes before the ground operation. In Khan Younis, the operation was longer and less intense, using more elite infantry units, including paratroops and commandos.

Rafah will require another rethink because of the different nature of the fighting and the grim fact that civilians caught in the crossfire will have far more limited options to seek safety.

Life on the edge

The war seems far away as signs of normalcy return in Kibbutz Magen. As farm equipment operates, heavy machine gun fire and a few outgoing artillery rounds can be heard in the distance. Signs of the massive fighting in November and December are gone.

Nevertheless, Israeli civilians are generally not returning to these communities. About 200,000 Israelis were evacuated from 100 communities along the Gaza border and the northern border with Lebanon, where Israeli forces have traded salvos and attacks with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement that, like Hamas, has close ties to Iran.

Driving from Magen to Sderot, a larger city where many residents have returned to their homes, civilian traffic shows a slight uptick from two months ago. Israeli authorities have invested in cleaning up the area, refurbishing signs and painting the armored bus shelters where Hamas terrorists carried out violence on Oct. 7.

Grimmer signs commemorate the victims who will never return.

Hundreds of IDF soldiers gathered last week in the fields where people attended a large music festival on Oct. 7.

The soldiers can take some time off from the fighting because Israel has withdrawn many units from Gaza, but they are ready for the next stage if and when it begins.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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