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Palestinians mourn relatives killed in Israel's bombing of Rafah on Monday.
Analysis

As Israel defies US to attack Rafah, where 1.4m people are trapped, what's the world's next move?

The EU has ridiculed the idea that Rafah can be evacuated as a ground attack looms.

IRISH MINISTERS have not held back when asked about Israel’s bombing of the Rafah on Sunday night and prime minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to continue with a full ground offensive in the southern Gazan city.

Simon Coveney, Minister for Enterprise and a former foreign affairs minister, this morning accused Israel of “behaving like a rogue state”.

Yesterday, after the overnight attacks in which 100 people were killed, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin warned that the continued bombardment of Rafah “will constitute a war crime”.

Neve Gordon, professor of human rights law at Queen Mary University of London, believes it can be put even more bluntly.

“Rafah itself is a war crime,” says Gordon, vice-president of the British Society for Middle East Studies.

In this, the southernmost area of Gaza, an estimated 1.4m Palestinians – over half the territory’s population – are trapped. Most have fled Israel’s attacks on the north of the enclave. On one side of them there is the closed border with Egypt and on the other the swathe of Gaza subject to Israel’s active ground offensive.

In Rafah, people “do not have enough food, the sanitation is horrendous”, Gordon said.

Israel’s attacks on what was supposed to be Gaza’s last place of safety have marked a new phase in the conflict that has claimed over 28,000 Palestinians’ lives.

Even the staunchest and most powerful international allies of Israel, the US and the UK, have expressed grave concern about Netanyahu’s decision, and about the prospect of the ground offensive in Gaza pressing south into the overcrowded refugee camps of Rafah.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden urged Israel not to carry out a full-scale assault without a “credible” plan to protect people in Rafah. The idea that evacuation of Rafah’s civilians is possible has been flatly contradicted by the UN and ridiculed by the EU.

Hamas has warned that an Israeli push into Rafah will “torpedo” talks on a ceasefire and prisoner-hostage exchanges. Two Israeli hostages were freed in the operation that killed 100 Palestinians overnight.

Why is Israel ignoring its international allies? 

“It seems to be to do with Netanyahu’s prospects of staying in power,” Gordon suggests.

One poll published this week indicated Netanyahu’s Likud party would hold just 18 out of the parliament’s 120 seats, with the current opposition winning 75, as reported by The Times of Israel.

Netanyahu has a corruption trial against him pending, while polling after the October 7 attacks by Hamas that killed about 1,160 Israelis indicated most citizens believe he held responsibility for failing to prevent the atrocities.

“The only way for him to stay in power is to continue with the war,” Gordon said. “I think there is something very personal going on and despite the pressure – even from [US President Joe] Biden and the EU – he’s going ahead with the attack on Rafah.”

He noted that the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza is less visible in Israel than outsiders may realise, with little about the impact of Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the mainstream press.

On Monday afternoon, the top three stories on the English language Jerusalem Post, including two about Rafah, focused on Israeli hostages. 

What have the US, the EU and the UK said?

Last week, Biden and his officials made it clear that the US did not support an Israeli offensive in Rafah, with the president describing such a move as “over the top”.

Noting that Rafah was also a vital entry point for humanitarian aid into the besieged territory, a US State Department spokesman said that the operation would be “a disaster”.

On Saturday, as it became clear that troops were being mobilised, David Cameron, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, added Britain’s voice to the growing international clamour for Netanyahu to pause his plans.

Yesterday, Cameron condemned Israel’s attack, urging it to “stop and think seriously before it takes any further action”.

He spoke out about the plight of the people trapped in Rafah, “many of whom have moved four, five six times before getting there”.

“It really, we think, is impossible to see how you can fight a war amongst these people, there is nowhere for them to go,” Cameron said.

They can’t go south into Egypt, they can’t go north and back to their homes because many have been destroyed.”

For the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, however, expressions of concerns ring hollow when they come from countries that supply arms to Israel.

Recalling Biden’s “over the top” comment he said: “Well, if you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people have been killed.”

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs also ridiculed Netanyahu’s order to his army to prepare plans to evacuate Rafah’s civilian population.

“They are going to evacuate. Where? To the moon? Where are they going to evacuate these people?” Borrell said.

On Saturday, before the offensive began, Borrell warned that it would lead not only to an “unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe” but also to “grave tensions with Egypt”. Like other world leaders, he urged a suspension in hostilities. 

Today, Italy’s foreign minister branded Israel’s attacks on Rafah “disproportionate”, while Germany’s foreign minister said Israel had a duty to guarantee “safe corridors” for civilians in Rafah before conducting any incursion. Germany is one of Israel’s closest allies.

What is the situation on the ground in Rafah?

Even before the offensive began the situation for Rafah’s 1.4m residents was “dire”, according to Peter Power, executive director for Ireland of Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, which has staff on the ground in Gaza.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people living under tarpaulin sheets, some of which we have supplied, literally living from hand to mouth,” Power said.

There is no regular supply of food. There is human waste flowing through the streets. There is no clean water. And it’s wet and cold at the moment.”

Some of the last remaining hospitals and healthcare facilities in Gaza are in Rafah but with the local population having increased at least six fold due to the influx of displaced people, these are under enormous strain.

Israeli ground operations Reported Israeli ground operations PA PA

“If they were to be destroyed or damaged the repercussions would be phenomenal,” Power said.

“There are so many people in hospitals, UN shelters and schools. We are appealing to all parties to adhere to their obligations under international law and not target these facilities.”

Any military operation in such a densely populated residential area “will have indiscriminate effects on innocent women and children”, Power adds. 

Inevitably, innocent women and children will die and that is something unconscionable.”

How can the world respond and can a truce be reached?

Gordon believes the “only prospect” of Israel changing course is a threat of sanction from “the EU or US – one is enough”.

“There has to be a certain kind of executive enforcement power otherwise Israel will do as its prime minister wants it to do,” Gordon said.

“What [the US and UK] needs to be doing is saying, ‘if you do not suspend hostilities, that’s it with our economic aid, with our weapons trade’. The minute they say that it’s over and there’ll be a ceasefire.”

On Monday, after talks in Washington with the King of Jordon, Biden insisted the US was working on a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas which would “bring an immediate and sustained period of calm into Gaza” during which a more permanent ceasefire could be agreed.

As international pressure for a truce grows, talks are underway in Cairo today involving the heads of the CIA and Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, as well as Qatar’s Prime Minister. Egypt and Qatar have been mediating between Israel and Hamas with US support.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has called on the UN Security Council to intervene over Rafah.

While the council can institute sanctions, the US has used its permanent members veto repeatedly to protect Israel. Nevertheless Saudi Arabia’s submission – which will gain widespread support from other countries – is “extremely important if only to show the double standards of the US”, Gordon said.

Israel’s ongoing campaign in Gaza comes less than three weeks after the International Court of Justice warned Israel to do everything within its power to prevent genocide against Palestinians. This morning, Coveney accused Israel of flouting the ICJ’s demands.

The International Criminal Court is also watching closely. On Monday, the court’s prosecutor said he was “deeply concerned” by the potential ground incursion by Israeli forces in Rafah.

“All wars have rules and the laws applicable to armed conflict cannot be interpreted so as to render them hollow or devoid of meaning,” said Karim Khan, adding that “those who are in breach of the law will be held accountable”.

Additional reporting by Press Association and © AFP 2024