Israel is poised to inflict the largest humanitarian catastrophe yet on desperate Palestinian civilians in Gaza, as its planes strike and troops push into Rafah, the last urban refuge for families fleeing the fighting.
Roughly half of Gaza’s population is now trapped in the southern city up against the Egyptian border — having fled progressively south on Israeli military orders — and is now living in tents or rough on the streets. International aid agencies are frantic.
“Military operations in Rafah will result in the displacement of more than a million people who have nowhere left to go,” warns Bob Kitchen, the vice president of emergencies at the International Rescue Committee. “If they aren’t killed in the fighting,” he adds, “they will be at risk of dying by starvation or disease. There will no longer be a single ‘safe’ area for Palestinians as their homes, markets, and health services have been annihilated.”
Yet, even as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shuttles around the region trying to arrange a humanitarian cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages, neither Hamas nor Israel appear moved by civilian casualties.
Hamas has praised civilians as martyrs, whose deaths rally sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Israel bombs the areas to which it directed Gazans for safety — and shrugs off international demands that it protect Gazan civilians.
Over and over, Blinken and President Joe Biden have urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to curb civilian casualties in Gaza and stop indiscriminate bombing. The Israeli leader has repeatedly stiffed them. With a Rafah disaster in the offing — which could sink the latest U.S. hostage release efforts — it is time for Blinken to abandon his cool with both sides.
On his fifth trip to the region, and seventh trip to Israel since the horrific Hamas invasion of Oct. 7, Blinken has been rebuffed by both Hamas and Netanyahu in his latest efforts to get hostages home and godfather a regional Israel-Palestine-Arab peace deal.
With American, Israeli, and Egyptian backing, Qatar had sent Hamas a rough framework proposal at the end of January, suggesting a six-week pause in fighting and more aid deliveries. In exchange, there would be a staggered release of Israeli hostages, matched by the release of a large number of Palestinian security prisoners.
The three-phased Hamas counterproposal, as laid out in Israeli and Lebanese media, was a total nonstarter. By the last phase, it would ultimately require Israel to pull out fully from Gaza, end the war, ensure aid deliveries and rebuilding, and leave Hamas effectively in charge.
There is no way Israel can accept future Hamas control of Gaza. The terrorist group is openly committed in its charter to the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews; its leaders have pledged to repeat Oct. 7 over and over again.
But the Netanyahu government’s indifference to the deaths of Gazan civilians — even apart from simple morality, or the question of war crimes — makes Hamas’ survival more likely.
A civilian bloodbath in Rafah will further antagonize Israel’s moderate Arab partners and further turn global public opinion against Israel. It will reduce any chance that Arab nations or international forces would be willing to take over the civilian administration of Gaza once the war ends so Israel doesn’t have to. It will likely ensure that the Israeli military will have to fully reoccupy Gaza and face a continued Hamas insurgency that will sap defense forces. It will probably doom the remaining Israeli hostages.
Yet, this appears to be the course Netanyahu has set.
Clearly, Blinken’s ire is rising. Having supported Israel to the hilt, and having said Hamas has no place in Gaza’s future, he (and Biden) are now getting the finger from Netanyahu. The Israeli leader appears unwilling to end the war on any basis, lest public wrath at the government’s Oct. 7 failures lead to his fall from power.
In an astonishing news conference Wednesday, Blinken practically begged Israel not to doom more Gazan women and children to their deaths.
“Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on Oct. 7,” the secretary said. “The hostages have been dehumanized every day since. But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others. The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks … we cannot, we must not, lose sight of that. We cannot, we must not, lose sight of our common humanity.”
That plea is likely to land on deaf ears in Jerusalem.
Blinken also revealed that, in conversations with Netanyahu, he had “raised our profound concerns about actions and rhetoric, including from government officials, that inflame tensions that undercut international support, and place greater strains on Israel’s security.”
My translation: Washington is worried that Netanyahu’s extremist ministers want to drive Palestinians physically out of Gaza and the West Bank. Their efforts will undercut any hostage release or moderate Arab efforts to end the Gaza war without a victory by Hamas.
Sadly, there is no sign Netanyahu is listening. Nor does it appear at all likely that Israel can defeat Hamas by military means alone. Until Israelis and Palestinians can produce more farsighted leaders, a Gaza solution appears far off.
But when it comes to avoiding a Rafah bloodbath, it is time for Blinken and Biden to be far more forthright with Netanyahu. It is time to make clear that unless and until Israel has a plan for safeguarding civilians, the White House will openly oppose a Rafah invasion, including at the U.N. Security Council.
If Netanyahu and his radical ministers insist on leading Israel toward disaster in Gaza, it is time to rethink future U.S. military support for Israel’s war.
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