May 28, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

All eyes are focused on Rafah as IDF moves forward

As the IDF advances along the border and into the built-up area of Rafah city and possibly into Rafah camp, all eyes will be on what comes next.
May 28, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

All eyes are focused on Rafah as IDF moves forward

As the IDF advances along the border and into the built-up area of Rafah city and possibly into Rafah camp, all eyes will be on what comes next.

The battle for Rafah is becoming the crucible through which a  new stage of the Gaza war is now passing. The battle has been brewing for months which has made the city a focus of international attention because many countries, both hostile and friendly, have warned Israel against this operation.

Israel proceeded anyway, sending tanks to seize the Rafah crossing on May 7. Now, more than two weeks into the battle, foreign reports say tanks have reached an area near Al-Awda mosque in central Rafah.

Foreign reports said that the IDF was still advancing. Rafah’s environs were sheltering around a million people displaced from other areas in Gaza.

Most of these people left Rafah in early May after the IDF asked them to evacuate. This may leave several hundred thousand people in the areas today.

The IDF has proceeded along the border, an area called the Philadelphi corridor, over the last two weeks. The initial advance was in open country near a former airport and leading up to the Rafah crossing. The areas in eastern Rafah that were first taken included the Salah al-Din road, an important artery leading to Khan Yunis and northern Gaza.

Then IDF units fanned out a bit but continued to advance along the Egyptian border. The area here becomes more built up and dense along the border. The entire border area here is about 11km. long.

The corridor along the border has long been a weapons smuggling center. The IDF operated along the same corridor back in 2003 when Israel controlled the entire Gaza strip. The operation cleared the area of terrorist infrastructure. This area included not only weapons smuggling, but also storage and manufacturing.

Areas of Rafah

Rafah itself is divided into several areas. There is a refugee camp and another densely built-up area in Rafah city itself which is kind of  fans out from the border.

That means that as the IDF proceeds it gets close to the center of this fan, and beyond the center it will then face the dense Rafah camp area and only after that the less densely populated area closer to the sea. All eyes are on the IDF now because it is in a complex urban area, possibly at the height of the battle for the city.

The airstrike on May 26 that led to a fire that killed Gazans in Tell Sultan took place northwest of Rafah city and overlooks the Mediterranean. It consists of several planned neighborhoods. The area closest to the sea was built over formerly Jewish communities that were evacuated in the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza.

Rafiah Yam existed near the sea on the Egyptian border. Most of the area is now used to shelter displaced people, adjoining the Mawasi safe zone where Israel has encouraged people in Gaza to relocate throughout the war.

As the IDF advances along the frontier area it will secure most of the Gaza-Egypt border. This will cut off Hamas which has used the Rafah border to control and steal humanitarian aid reaching Gaza from Egypt.

When the battle began, Hamas was thought to have four battalions of fighters in Rafah, but it appears that many have dispersed to Khan Yunis or have retreated slightly from the border.

All eyes are on this area now. The deaths of civilians on May 26 and a clash which killed an Egyptian soldier on May 27 have increased concern about what may come next. The defeat of Hamas is key. However, even when the corridor is taken, there will be a lot more areas in Rafah that may need to be cleared.

Because the IDF is focusing on the corridor itself, and some urban areas, it is conducting an operation similar to the 2003 operation. The built-up areas of Rafah city and Rafah camp are both difficult to fight in and Hamas has likely festooned homes with threats.

In Rafah the border challenge is hard enough because of the matrix of tunnels and rocket launchers. Hamas had installed the rockets fired at Tel Aviv on Sunday a while ago, and launched them apparently because the IDF had reached a few hundred meters from the launch site. 

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.

Issues:

Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power