HE has vowed to keep fighting until “total victory”. But few seem to know exactly what defines that victory Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of – least of all himself.

Ever since Israel’s onslaught in Gaza in response to the October 7 attacks by ­Hamas, many diplomats and regional and military analysts alike have ­commented on the lack of any clear-sighted ­objective, short of Netanyahu’s insistence that ­Hamas must be eviscerated and the ­hostages that they seized be brought home.

But if the latest comments by top Israeli officials are anything to go by, then that “evisceration” of Hamas will necessitate a military operation that many analysts also agree would probably be the most challenging of the war to date. 

This weekend, Netanyahu doubled down on his aim to assault Rafah, ordering the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to develop a “combined plan” to defeat the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah and evacuate civilians from the city that sits alongside the border with Egypt.  

The National: Benjamin Netanyahu

Whatever way it’s viewed, any assault on Rafah would both strategically and geopolitically be fraught with ­challenges – not least of which would be the dire ­humanitarian consequences for a crisis that has few modern parallels.

Israel though seems undeterred by the prospect of inflicting yet another wave of mass suffering on the Palestinian ­population, of whom an estimated 1.4 million – almost half of Gaza’s ­population – are crammed into Rafah, enduring ­horrific conditions and with nowhere ­further to flee. 

“You have 1.4 million people, you have tens of kilometres of people living in the streets in plastic makeshifts … and you try and figure out a military ­offensive in the middle of these completely ­exposed, ­vulnerable people – it’s a recipe for ­disaster,” warned Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees last Friday.

“I am almost becoming wordless; I don’t know how to describe this … How do you move hundreds of thousands of people because you want to go into the city? I don’t know. If you move them to the middle of nowhere, what facilities will they have?” Lazzarini continued. 

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Lazzarini’s point is well made, for while Netanyahu might speak of “evacuating” civilians, the enormous numbers involved beg the question: Evacuate them to where?  Then there is also Israel’s track record to date in Gaza, whereby it has adopted a strategy of calling for civilians to move from areas under military assault to other “safer” locations, only for those locations, in turn, to come under attack. 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, many see Netanyahu’s talk of a civilian evacuation as little more than codified language for forcing Gaza’s entire population over the border into Egypt in a move some argue would effectively constitute ethnic ­cleansing. 

This though, say Netanyahu’s ­critics, would satisfy Israel’s ultra-right-wing nationalists – to whom his coalition ­government is beholden and who have long wished to have Gaza “emptied” and “resettled”. There have been reports too that Netanyahu believes that speed is of the essence. According to a news report last Friday night on Israeli ­television’s Channel 12, the prime minister ­recently told the small war cabinet that the ­operation in Gaza’s southernmost city will need to be completed before the ­Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10. 

Citing the Channel 12 report, The Times Of Israel newspaper said the assessment was reportedly made during a ­discussion about the pending Rafah operation, ­during which IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi told Netanyahu that the IDF was ready to operate, but that it needed the government to first decide what it wanted to do with the displaced Gazans ­sheltering there.

The IDF chief of staff was also quoted by Channel 12 as saying that the military also needs to know the government’s plans for the Philadelphi Route, the 14-kilometre security road along Gaza’s border with Egypt. 

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There appears to be increasing nervousness over what Egypt’s possible reaction might be were any Israeli military operation in Rafah to result in huge numbers of ­Palestinians attempting to flee by trying to cross into Egypt. 

Faced with such problems, the ­Israelis appear for now focused on trying to ­prevent further antagonising their ­already twitchy American allies and the ­international community by instead laying ­emphasis on dealing Hamas a fatal blow and eliminating their senior leaders in Gaza who have evaded capture. 

To that end, Netanyahu’s office ­repeatedly stresses that Israel could not achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas, “by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah”.

Israeli officials say too that dismantling Hamas’s infrastructure for smuggling weapons across the border – including at Rafah – a key cross-border pipeline is vital, as failing to do so would mean the group would be able to rearm quickly.

“We are continuing this operation, and we will also reach the places where we have not yet fought in the central and ­southern strip, and especially the last centre of gravity left in Hamas hands – Rafah,” ­declared Israel’s ­defence ­minister Yoav Gallant at a news ­conference last week.

Gallant’s declaration didn’t go as far as to provide details about how Israel’s military would target Rafah – which has already been subjected to airstrikes – nor did give any clues to a time frame. But that didn’t stop it from sending shock waves not only through Gaza’s ­beleaguered citizens, but also through the corridors of power at the highest ­geopolitical level.

The National: Antonio Guterres

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres (above) wasted no time in warning that were ­Israel to send its military into Rafah, it would “exponentially increase what is ­already a humanitarian nightmare”.  “Israeli military operations have ­resulted in destruction and death in Gaza at a scale and speed without parallel” ­during his tenure, he told the UN General Assembly.

Gallant’s declaration also ­reverberated in Washington where an already ­politically uneasy US president, Joe Biden, called Israel’s conduct to date “over the top”.

The almost seemingly casual tone of Biden’s remark, however, did not sit well with many who were quick to remind the US leader that this is an Israeli military operation that has already left 30,000 Gazans dead – including one in three ­children – and that additional US ­weapons support for Israel has been readily ­forthcoming throughout the four-month-long war.  As the IDF got down to drawing up Netanyahu’s plan for Rafah this weekend, conditions in the city were reported to be rapidly deteriorating.

Four months of Israel’s military ­campaign has now trapped more than half of Gaza’s population in a small patch of land between the Israeli ground ­offensive, the Mediterranean and the sealed border with Egypt.

Tent encampments have appeared in Rafah, swelling its population to around five times its normal level. The prices of goods there have skyrocketed and ­residents say they are enduring a daily struggle to get essentials like food and water.

In a report published last week, the United Nations said that most of the newly displaced in Rafah have access to only 1.5 to two litres of water a day for all their needs. A fuel shortage prevents desalination plants from fully ­treating ­water, causing widespread chronic ­diarrhoea among children. 

Desperate to leave, some Gazans have been able to find enough money to get out across the border with Egypt which has been closed for most of the time since the war started in October.

A report in the UK-based news website Middle East Eye (MEE), cited one 39-year-old ­Palestinian, Mahmoud, who was formerly a ­shopkeeper as paying $15,000 to a ­“mediator” in Gaza. With neither he nor his wife having dual nationality and ­neither registered as severely injured, they were not allowed to exit Gaza unless their names appeared on the daily lists of Palestinians permitted to pass over into Egypt, MEE reported.

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“With the help of family members and relatives in Germany and Sweden, I was able to collect the money for myself and my family to get out,” Mahmoud told MEE.

Before making it across the border, Mahmoud told how he had lost seven members of his family including his father­, stepmother, and two uncles. 

As ever in such desperate times, there are those out to make a profit from the hardship, suffering and fear or ordinary civilians. MEE’s report detailed how the dire situation has opened the door for “mediators” to profit amidst the carnage. The news portal says that according to multiple sources, agreed fees range from $2000 for children to between $5000 and $7000 for adults – and all deals are done in cash. 

News of Palestinians paying to cross the border surfacing online have sparked an angry reaction from Egyptian officials, says MEE, with Diaa Rashwan – the head of Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS) – condemning reports that additional fees are being imposed on Palestinians at the Rafah border crossing as “unfounded allegations.” 

But with very few Gazans having such disposal income available to pay such ­exorbitant prices and with the situation set to become even worse, concerns are growing as to what might yet fully unfold along the Egyptian border. 

Ahead of Israel’s anticipated operation in Rafah, Egypt is reported to have sent about 40 tanks and armoured personnel carriers to north-eastern Sinai over the past weeks as part of a series of ­measures to bolster security on its border with Gaza. According to two Egyptian ­security sources who spoke with Reuters news agency, Egyptian fears are mounting that Palestinians could be forced out en-masse from the enclave.

Since the war between Israel and ­Hamas erupted on October 7, Egypt has constructed a concrete border wall that reaches six metres into the ground and is topped with barbed wire. It has also built berms and enhanced surveillance at ­border posts, the security sources said.

While Egypt and Israel have been at peace for more than four decades and in recent years have extended ties through Israeli exports, the relationship has come under strain because of Israel’s current military operation and Rafah could prove a dangerous spark.

On being informed by Israel that it was planning a ground operation in ­Rafah, Egyptian officials warned that if any ­Palestinians were forced to cross into the Sinai Peninsula, or if Israeli troops moved into Rafah, a decades-long peace treaty between the two countries would be ­suspended, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported last week.

According to the report, an Egyptian delegation was in Tel Aviv last Friday for talks with Israeli officials about the ­situation with Israeli officials trying to get Egypt to agree on some cooperation ­regarding the ground invasion, which Egyptian officials are resisting. 

Diplomats and analysts say Egypt is also concerned about infiltration by Hamas and hosting a large refugee population. In October, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warned that displacement could turn Sinai into a base for attacks against Israel, a view that many regional analysts agree with.

Also looking on nervously of course as all this regional tension grows is the US.  President Biden issued his bluntest criticism yet after Israel announced its ­intended Rafah operation, and along with US national security spokesperson John Kirby, urged Israel against attacking ­Rafah.

Kirby outlined Washington’s concerns warning that the US would not support a military operation in the city “without any kind of due consideration” for the ­civilian population. 

“Any major military operation in Rafah at this time, under these circumstances, with more than a million – probably more like a million and a half – Palestinians who are seeking refuge [there] without due consideration for their safety would be a disaster,” Kirby said last Thursday. 

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But critics of US positioning on the war argue that to date Washington has been as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution to the crisis. They point to additional US arms supplies to Israel and Biden’s foot-dragging approach to ­reining in its main ally in the Middle East.

While some believe Israel’s assault on Rafah might yet be some time off, ­given that its forces remain bogged down in other parts of Gaza and planning for such an operation will be a tricky process, ­though others say Netanyahu seems determined to press ahead as quickly as possible.  Israel’s recent Channel 12 news ­report would certainly appear to bear that out with the operation aimed at ­being ­completed before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in early March. 

Whatever the actual timing, few doubt that Rafah is about to bear the full brunt of an Israeli military onslaught much like other parts of Gaza have to date. For those Palestinians who have already ­suffered and sought some kind of ­sanctuary in Rafah, it’s a truly awful prospect. How it might end is an altogether different question.