Rafah: Netanyahu’s marketing tool and lightning rod

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Rafah

The besieged Gazan city of Rafah is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s yo-yo.

“The man is in the midst of an election campaign, Rafah is a marketing tool and (the Americans) are the whipping boy,” said Israeli columnist Yossi Verter.

Mr. Netanyahu made that clear when he insisted after talks on Friday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel would launch a ground offensive in Rafah, home to a majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians displaced by the six-month-old war, with or without the support of the United States.

Netanyahu meets Blinken. Credit: David Azagury/US Embassy
Israeli pundits suggest that by turning Rafah into a focal point of disagreement between the United States and Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has engineered a situation in which he can blame the US for his potential inability to attack the city and failure to achieve Israel’s war goals.

Six months into the war, Mr. Netanyahu has failed to destroy Hamas, free more than 100 hostages still held by the group and ensure that Gaza will no longer be a base for Palestinian resistance.

“The tireless salesman recognized Rafah as an excellent motif after the ‘threat of the Palestinian state’ was starting to fray. Something new was needed, one that would give shape and conform to the slogan ‘Total Victory,’” Mr. Verter said, referring to Mr. Netanyahu.

“At the beginning of February, Netanyahu began to utter ‘Rafah’ at almost every available opportunity… Throughout almost two months of the Rafah campaign, the Israeli prime minister knew that the operation there was far away. Rhetorically, he seemed to be bringing it closer, but in his actions, he was ensuring it was not going to happen anytime soon,” Mr. Verter added.

Two days after talking by phone to US President Joe Biden and two days before meeting Mr. Blinken, Mr. Netanyahu last week confirmed as much, saying, “We are preparing to enter Rafah, which will take some time.”

For once, Mr. Netanyahu may have been speaking the truth. So far, Israel has yet to redeploy troops for an offensive and move Palestinian civilians into safe zones, which have not been created and in the past have proven illusionary.

In what can only be fantasy, hubris, or Mr. Netanyahu’s yo-yo, Israel proposed that the United States and Gulf states fund the creation in southwestern Gaza of 15 sprawling tent cities with 25,000 tents each to house Rafah residents in advance of an offensive.

Displaced Palestinians in a tent camp in Rafah. Credit: Reuters
Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that a ground offensive is key to destroying Hamas. In addition, Israeli officials believe that Hamas holds its remaining hostages in Rafah and that Hamas’ Gaza-based leader Yahya Sinwar, Israel’s most wanted man, is hiding in tunnels underneath the city.

Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu needs time to give ceasefire talks mediated by Qatar, Egypt, and the United States at least a nominal chance of success.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Hamas political bureau member Bassem Naim asserted that Israel was not seriously negotiating. “We believe that it is not about negotiations, not about a ceasefire… It’s about Netanyahu gaining more time… It’s about Netanyahu rejecting ending this aggression,” Mr. Naim said.

Israel has rejected Hamas’ demand for a permanent ceasefire.

Israel and Hamas differ further on the phasing and exchange rate of a swap of the Hamas-held hostages for Palestinians in Israeli prisons, whether and which Palestinians sentenced by Israeli courts to long-term or life sentences will be included in the deal, a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and the rate of return of displaced Palestinians to their homes in northern Gaza.

Israeli media reported that Israel may consider a permanent ceasefire and a Hamas demand that Israel promise not to target Mr. Sinwar and other Hamas leaders if they went into exile as part of a deal that would also involve the demilitarisation of Gaza and the release of all hostages.

Hamas has denied the reports. “We are on our land and not going anywhere,” said senior Hamas official Husam Badran.

Furthermore, Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t want to launch an attack on Rafah on the eve of talks in Washington led by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Demer on a possible Rafah offensive and future US arms sales.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images
Nor does he intend to attack during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a period of heightened emotion.

Finally, Mr. Netanyahu needs to have an understanding with Egypt, which borders on Rafah, to prevent an offensive from spinning out of control.

Even so, Rafah is more than just Mr. Netanyahu’s latest attempt to shore up his severely tarnished image among Israelis.

Thousands of Israelis demonstrated on Saturday for the sixth week in a row, demanding Mr. Netanyahu’s resignation, and the immediate release of the Hamas-held hostages.

Mr. Netanyahu’s focus on Rafah distracts from his government’s efforts to deal a death knell to the international community’s revived push to leverage the Gaza war to launch a process that would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

With Mr. Blinken in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, announced on Friday that Israel would seize 800 hectares of land in the occupied West Bank.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, January 8, 2023. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
The seizure, which has yet to be officially registered, would be the largest Israeli land grab in more than 30 years.

The planned grab comes three weeks after Israel confiscated 264 hectares of West Bank land between the settlements of Maale Adumim and Kedar on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

A resident of an Israeli West Bank settlement in charge of Israeli settlement policy, Mr. Smotrich said, “While there are those in Israel and the world who seek to undermine our right over the Judea and Samaria area and the country in general, we are promoting settlement through hard work and in a strategic manner all over the country,” Mr. Smotrich said. He was referring to the territory by the Biblical terms Israel employs to legitimise its claims to the land.

By announcing the latest land seizure as Mr. Blinken visited Israel for the sixth time since the Gaza war erupted in October, Mr. Smotrich, with no apparent pushback from Mr. Netanyahu, defied the United States’s long-standing insistence that Israeli West Bank settlements violate international law.

To be fair, Messrs. Netanyahu and Gallant no longer need to sign off on West Bank settlement construction since the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, waived the requirement in June.

Last month, the Biden administration restated US settlement policy to emphasise that the Trump administration’s support for settlements constituted a brief interlude rather than a permanent reversal of the decades-long US position.

“Our administration maintains a firm opposition to settlement expansion, and in our judgment, this only weakens, doesn’t strengthen Israel’s security,” Mr. Blinken said at the time.

In recent weeks, the United States and Europe have sanctioned Israeli settlers amid increased vigilante violence against Palestinians and illegal land grabs by settlers.

The latest land seizures are intended to ensure that a Palestinian state becomes impossible.

Israeli proponents of a two-state solution argue that the state remains a realistic option, despite the 750,000 Israeli settlers resident in 144 settlements and 100 outposts spread throughout the West Bank.

A study by Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli paratrooper, advisor to the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak on negotiations with the Palestinians, and a scholar, suggests that lack of political will rather than settlements constitutes the main obstacle to achieving a two-state solution.

Mr. Arieli’s study concluded that 80 per cent of Israeli settlers live on approximately four per cent of the West Bank’s land close to Israel’s pre-1967 border. They could remain resident in Israel by swapping West Bank land for Israeli land adjacent to the border as part of a peace agreement.

The remaining 20 per cent of settlers would have to choose between packing up and moving to Israel or living under Palestinian rule.

Palestinian officials and activists charge that the latest land seizures were designed to prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state, disrupt trade in the West Bank by dividing the north of the territory from the south, and control the region’s food basket.

“It will be a catastrophe for Palestinians who live in the south. Palestinian traders, especially in the south, will be cut off, and it will become impossible to have any independent Palestinian ways of life,” said lands rights activist Hamza Zubiedat.

The Palestine Authority described the land seizure as Israel’s “official policy racing against time to annex the West Bank and eliminate the possibility of creating a Palestinian state.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.