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Israel’s Catch-22 in Rafah

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Israel does not want to run the Gaza Strip, and yet that may allow Hamas to regroup. 

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is grinding on after seven months of fighting Hamas. Since the October 7 attack, Israel has faced not only threats from Hamas in Gaza but also increasing attacks from Iranian-backed proxy forces in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in the Red Sea. As Israel approaches its eighth month of war, it is now clear that defeating Hamas in Gaza has become much more challenging than other counter-terrorism campaigns, such as the Iraqi defeat of ISIS in Mosul in 2017. Israel now faces hard choices in Gaza as to what will come next.

The war in Gaza went through several phases. It began with a bombing campaign followed by a ground offensive on October 27. An initial intense campaign in northern Gaza led to 1.7 million Gazans fleeing and saw Israeli tanks and infantry sweeping through dense urban areas. The initial intense phase of fighting, which saw large Hamas concentrations eliminated in northern Gaza, quickly gave way to less intense fighting and more raids by special forces. The shift to lower-intensity fighting in December and January came amid U.S. pressure on Israel but also for operational reasons. The IDF had called up 300,000 reserve soldiers in October after the Hamas attack, and they couldn’t be kept at the front forever.

The lower-intensity campaign stretched from January through early May and saw the IDF enter Khan Younis in southern Gaza, the hometown of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Israel said it had two war aims: to defeat Hamas and release the hostages still held by the group. By the spring of 2024, Hamas still held 130 hostages. When hostage talks came to an abrupt end in Cairo and Doha, Israel’s focus shifted again as Israeli politicians vowed to go into the southern Gaza city of Rafah to clear out one of the last Hamas strongholds.

Hamas helped Israel accelerate its plans for a battle in Rafah on May 5 by firing projectiles at Israeli soldiers near Kerem Shalom, a community near the border between Gaza and Egypt. The projectiles were fired from near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which is about a mile inside Gaza from Israel and is the main crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Two days after the projectiles were fired, killing four Israeli soldiers, the IDF rolled into the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing with tanks.

The battle for Rafah is shaping up to be a pivotal moment in the war. Rafah is on the border with Egypt, and Hamas has resupplied itself over the years by controlling this area. Once Israel controls most of Rafah, evidence as to how Hamas has resupplied over the years, such as through underground tunnels to Egypt, may become more apparent. This could cut off Hamas from its supplies, but it still has assets throughout Gaza.

Hamas retains significant control over most of Gaza and exercises this control, in part, covertly by using plain clothes members. It infiltrated into areas the IDF already cleared in the fall of 2023 or in January and February 2024. The IDF doesn’t want to hold most of Gaza, relying instead on a small corridor it controls south of Gaza City to conduct raids. Lack of control leaves an opening for Hamas.

The IDF’s operations in Rafah and its next steps in other parts of Gaza now present Israel with hard choices. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on May 15, “the military operation is bearing results. Hamas no longer functions as a military organization—most of its battalions have been dismantled, and it has turned to terrorist warfare, conducted by individuals and small squads.” He warned that if Israel didn’t come up with a long-term plan in Gaza, such as who will govern it when Hamas is defeated, then Hamas could return: “…as long as Hamas retains control over civilian life in Gaza, it may rebuild and strengthen, thus requiring the IDF to return and fight, in areas where it has already operated.”

The war against Hamas in Gaza is more complex than other counter-insurgencies because there is no strong governing authority that can replace Hamas. For instance, when Iraq was fighting ISIS, it replaced the terrorists with existing Iraqi institutions. Those institutions had weakened before the arrival of ISIS, but once Iraq was able to restore control in 2015–2016, it was able to roll back the Islamic State. The challenge in Gaza is that Israel does not want to rule the strip. It already administered Gaza from 1967 to 2005. The international community would most likely oppose Israeli control anyway. The IDF has shown that it has no intention to control neighborhoods, and once it sweeps through and eliminates the terrorists it finds, its soldiers leave.

One option for a post-Hamas Gaza is to have the Palestinian Authority run it. Under the Oslo Accords and the previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, it was supposed to run Gaza. However, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he doesn’t want to see Hamas replaced by Fatah, the ruling party of the PA. Various other ideas for Gaza have been floated, such as seeing Arab countries play a role or seeing a reformed PA take over. However, the elephant in the room is that the Arab countries and the PA don’t want to be delivered to Gaza on a platter held by the IDF. They don’t want to be seen as collaborators, and they only want to be in Gaza if Hamas is defeated and won’t attack them on the day after the IDF leaves. This creates a “Catch-22” situation, where the only solution to a problem is impossible to implement because of the nature of the problem itself.

Israel faces an uphill struggle in Gaza. While Hamas battalions may be dispersed, they can regroup. The United States and Western powers want to see a ceasefire in Gaza. Some countries in the region may prefer Hamas defeated but without a drawn-out campaign in Gaza. The longer the war lasts, the more the Arab League and other regional organizations condemn Israel. This serves the interests of countries that back Hamas, such as Iran, as well as Russia, Turkey, and others. Suppose Gaza remains in a state of chaos, with Israeli raids every few months to reduce Hamas capabilities. In that case, this will likely feed Hamas propaganda in the West Bank and could lead to more regional instability.

A new phase is beginning in Gaza, and Israel will have to decide if that phase is going to be similar to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq or Syria or if it will leave Hamas in control, leading to a protracted conflict with no end in sight.