Israeli ground offensive in Rafah ‘aimed at making Gaza uninhabitable’

Israel has announced plans to launch a full-scale offensive against the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, claiming it is the only way to “completely destroy” Hamas. But according to former French military officer and author Guillaume Ancel, a large-scale military operation in the city, where half of Gaza’s population now lives, is of no strategic importance. In his analysis, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s sole goal is to “make the Palestinian enclave uninhabitable.”

The countdown has begun for Rafah. Israel on Sunday reiterated its threats to launch a major ground attack on the southern Gaza city before the start of Ramadan: the holy month in Islam, during which Muslims fast, is expected to begin around March 10. The city, once considered “safe” for civilians, is fueling international concern over the fate of the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in the city.

“The world needs to know, and Hamas leaders need to know – if our hostages are not home by Ramadan, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” said Benny Gantz, a former Israeli defense minister who currently part of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, at a conference of American Jewish leaders Sunday in Jerusalem. “Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages and the citizens of Gaza can celebrate the festival of Ramadan,” he added.

Having so far ignored the warnings of his Western allies, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appears more determined than ever to continue the war against Hamas, reaffirming on February 9 that he was aiming for a “total victory”. On February 17, he said that foreign countries calling on Israel to spare the city were essentially telling the country to “lose the war against Hamas.”

“Benny Gantz’s statements reflect a rift within the war cabinet,” said French military expert Guillaume Ancel in an interview with FRANCE 24. “While the extremists led by Netanyahu want to go to the extreme, those who are more moderate, like Benny Gantz, I want to leave the door open for negotiations, which are going very poorly at the moment.”

Pressure ‘on partners involved in negotiations’

According to a Hamas official quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz, the arrival of the movement’s political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo on Tuesday did not mean there had been a breakthrough in the negotiations.

Hosted by Egypt and Qatar, several rounds of talks were held in Cairo earlier this month but failed to reach an agreement on a ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. According to Israel, 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, of whom at least 30 are reportedly dead, out of the 257 kidnapped on October 7.

read moreWho are Gaza’s remaining hostages?

Talks have stalled over Hamas’ demands, which Binyamin Netanyahu describes as “delusional.” These include a ceasefire, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, an end to the Israeli blockade of Palestinian territory and safe shelter for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians.

“More than Hamas, this is about putting pressure on the partners involved in the negotiations, especially Egypt, Qatar and the US,” said Tewfik Hamel, a researcher in military history at the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, who sees Israel’s ultimatum as a call on the Islamist movement to capitulate.

Fears of ‘massacre’

Should new negotiations fail, the prospect of a military ground offensive in the overcrowded Rafah raises the greatest fears for the trapped Palestinian refugees. Nearly 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, mostly women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-held area.

“Almost 1.5 million Palestinians live in an area of ​​10 square kilometers, so this will necessarily lead to a massacre of the civilian population,” Hamel said. “An attack on the city of Rafah, where two-thirds of Gaza’s population is now under pressure, would mean a massacre,” Ancel agreed.

The former soldier points out that the city is already being bombed daily, intended to “prepare the area” for a ground attack. On Thursday, a new Israeli bombardment of the city leveled a mosque and destroyed homes in what residents called one of their worst nights yet. At least 97 people were killed and 130 others injured in the past 24 hours, according to Gaza health authorities. Most victims were still buried under rubble or in areas where rescuers could not reach.

“We can’t even imagine what this would mean for all these displaced people. A military offensive will cause even more chaos,” Jamie MacGoldrick, the UN Middle East coordinator, told FRANCE 24.

Reports from humanitarian organizations have become increasingly alarming about the situation in the Gaza Strip, where 2.2 million people could face famine. According to UN agencies, food and drinking water have become “extremely scarce” and 90 percent of young children in the enclave now suffer from infectious diseases.

view moreThe desperate search for food and water in Gaza

Netanyahu has said Israel would provide “safe passage” to civilians trying to leave Rafah before the attack, but has never specified to what destination. In the event of an offensive, Palestinian civilians would have to try to force their way across the closed border with Egypt.

“Egypt does not want refugees in Sinai because the authorities do not know whether Israel would later accept their return to the Gaza Strip, and Egypt does not want to host the refugees for fear that some could eventually become Hamas fighters. if the authorities do not explicitly mention it,” explains Bruno Daroux, international affairs editor of FRANCE 24.

But recently Cairo seemed to be preparing for this scenario. Cairo is building a walled camp in the Sinai Peninsula to house displaced Palestinian civilians from the Gaza Strip, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and an Egyptian NGO. After satellite images appeared to show extensive construction work along the border, reports claim the compound could house more than 100,000 people on the Egyptian side, parallel to the Gaza border.

Ancel sees this flight from Rafah as the real goal of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. “Rafah is the only urban center that has not been destroyed by the Israeli army. The government therefore wants to complete the destruction of the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure to make it uninhabitable. Netanyahu’s goal is to rid the Gaza Strip of Palestinians under the guise of fighting. Hamas,” said the former officer, who believes that “a terrorist organization cannot be destroyed by a military offensive.”

Destruction makes ‘return of civilians impossible’

“The current Israeli government rejects the creation of a Palestinian state. From that point of view, the most reasonable option is to expel the Palestinians from the area,” Hamel said. “However, Gaza residents’ attachment to the territory remains strong because they know that once there is a displacement of the population, the possibility of return completely ceases to exist.”

In addition to agricultural lands, nearly 40 percent of buildings in the Gaza Strip had been destroyed by January 17, an Israeli study shows. According to satellite data analysis obtained by the BBC, the actual figure is higher. That analysis shows that between 144,000 and 175,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed across the Gaza Strip – between 50 and 61 percent of buildings in Gaza.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk accused the Israeli army on February 8 of committing a “war crime” by reportedly destroying buildings within a kilometer of the barrier between the enclave and Israel to create a “buffer zone” along the border within Gaza yourself.

read moreGaza: More than 40% of buildings have been destroyed in the ‘buffer zone’ that Israel wants to create

Turk said the destruction “appears to be aimed at, or has the effect of rendering impossible, the return of civilians to these areas,” adding that Israel’s “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and deliberately , amounts to a serious violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a war crime,” he said in a statement.

This story has been adapted from the original in French.

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