Gaza War: Stalemate in Negotiations and Escalating Threat of Rafah Attack

By Shujauddin Amini

Hashet -e-Subh The Gaza war continues unabated, with seemingly earnest efforts to broker a ceasefire yielding no results. The death toll among Palestinians has neared 35,000. Despite all parties, including Israel, purportedly seeking a ceasefire, no tangible outcome has been achieved thus far. As of now, Rafah, the southernmost city of Gaza, has not been subjected to a wide-scale ground assault by the Israeli military, though occasional airstrikes have incurred casualties. Last week, the Israeli coalition government ordered the evacuation of residents in eastern Rafah, further fueling speculation of an imminent large-scale ground offensive. Over 100,000 people have taken this directive seriously, seeking refuge in the Al-Mawasi area, which Israel deems secure, and the city of Khan Yunis.

The Cairo negotiations were on the verge of giving positive results when suddenly hit a deadlock. After Hamas announced its agreement to the ceasefire proposal, Israel deemed it contrary to its interests and, in response, seized control of the Rafah crossing provocatively. While previously accusing Hamas leaders of opportunism and sabotage by accepting the ceasefire plan, Israel now claims that the content of the latest ceasefire proposal differs from what was previously agreed upon. These two events have clouded the prospects of a ceasefire and strengthened the suspicion of an attack on Rafah. Hence, the question arises: will Rafah witness a large-scale ground assault? Providing a clear answer to this question is challenging, especially amidst a deadlock in negotiations. However, another aspect of this question can be addressed, which is whether Rafah remains unscathed, considering the following factors:

  1. The current stance of the United States, which is based on avoiding a widespread attack on Rafah, is of paramount importance. The Biden administration’s approach must either hint at the destruction of Hamas’ military capabilities or the assassination of its leaders in Rafah, which it claims does not necessitate a large-scale attack. More importantly, the White House has announced its decision to refrain from sending shipments of guided bombs to Israel. While Biden previously mentioned to NBC News about the absence of a red line that would lead to a halt in arms shipments to Israel, America seems to have done so for two reasons: first, to make Israel feel somewhat isolated; second, the Biden administration has stated that American arms should not be used in the non-combatant massacre in Gaza and should not be used in Rafah. Biden’s current position does not lack influence on Netanyahu’s stance, as evidenced by his verbal response: “If necessary, we will fight alone and with all our might.” Whereas previously, he did not use the term “if” in his statements regarding Rafah. If the White House remains steadfast in its position, Netanyahu may contemplate how to achieve his goals in Rafah without the support of the United States, especially when serious American support in other parts of Gaza has not yielded results, now without that support in Rafah.
  2. The accepted ceasefire proposal by Hamas is also worth noting as it was offered by Egypt and Qatar, and rejected by Israel. Therefore, if implemented, it would benefit Hamas, aiming to exchange hostages for prisoners, complete withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip, permanent cessation of war, the lifting of the blockade, and subsequently its reconstruction. The U.S. is aware of the content of this proposal and is in agreement, but refrains from expressing its opinion openly. This indicates that the mediators also have Hamas’s interests in mind, although the prevailing assumption is based on their behavior favoring Israel. Even the indirect attention of the mediators to Hamas may make Netanyahu feel isolated and reconsider his calculations further. The fact that Hamas remains intact and a negotiating party is not good news for Israel.
  3. Israel, rather than intending a serious attack on Rafah, uses it as a tool of pressure. The attack on the Rafah crossing and its occupation is a clear example; it aims to compel Hamas to reconsider the ceasefire plan or perhaps to demonstrate its seriousness. More importantly, Netanyahu has discussed the approval of an attack on Rafah and its timing but has not yet proceeded with its full-scale implementation. Even the limited incursion received a green light from the U.S., perhaps to somewhat assuage Netanyahu’s anger. Consequently, the White House responded by stating that Israel did not cross a red line. Some media outlets reported, citing an Israeli source, that the long-term security of the Rafah crossing might be entrusted to an American private security company trusted by both Washington and Tel Aviv, perhaps to avoid claims of occupation after the war and the start of Gaza reconstruction. Regardless, the occupation of the crossing is advantageous for Israel, as it can meticulously monitor the flow of people and humanitarian aid, alleviating its concerns about the possibility of arms smuggling to Hamas.
  4. For Israel, the outcome of an attack on Rafah (the release of hostages and the destruction of Hamas’ military capabilities) is more important than initiating it. Given that the northern, central, and southern areas of Gaza have not received special attention, the prevalent belief hints at a repetition of past events in Rafah. Despite the advanced espionage capabilities of the U.S., Europe, and Israel, after seven months, they have not been able to locate the whereabouts of the hostages and Hamas military leaders. Netanyahu’s government has only freed two hostages through military operations in Rafah. If an attack on this city yields no results, Netanyahu will face even greater domestic and foreign challenges. Therefore, America’s preference is also for the release of hostages through negotiation. The release of hostages is crucial for the Biden administration, especially amid elections, and it seeks to use it as a winning card. For this reason, Biden has met with several families of hostages multiple times and promised their release. The White House believes that an attack on Rafah could complicate or even make the release of hostages impossible. Therefore, ensuring the desired outcome will further compel Israel to contemplate its actions.
  5. The conflict in Gaza has become exhausting, and Netanyahu’s government’s expectations have not been met. Consequently, both aerial and ground assaults have been reduced compared to the past. The inclination towards dialogue on the Israeli side is gaining more strength. Despite Netanyahu’s initial statements, it was unimaginable that Israel would be ready to accept a ceasefire and place Hamas in a position where it constantly imposes more constraints and conditions on mediators. Now, that moment has arrived. Therefore, it might be said that instead of attacking Rafah, Israel is contemplating how to exit the quagmire of Gaza in a manner that does not result in an assault on its weakness and defeat.

Contrary to the above five factors, only one internal factor within Netanyahu’s government compels it to attack Rafah: the insistence of right-wing extremist forces. These forces are allies of Netanyahu and consider refraining from attacking Rafah as the end of his government, without considering its consequences. The pressure from these right-wing extremists on Netanyahu is significant, and convincing them is not easy.