Fears of bloodbath in Rafah as ground operation looms in Gaza's overflowing city

Credit: AP

So the war has come down to Rafah.

Given the geography of Gaza and the fact the IDF has been advancing from the north, it was always inevitable that any final reckoning would take place in the strip’s southernmost district.

But what is also true is that the concoction of factors that have made this war so bloody and tragic are concentrated and magnified in Rafah right now.

Take the population, which has has skyrocketed to 1.5 million people; six-fold what it was on October 6.

Many of those people have been displaced several times and may soon be forced to up sticks yet again - the sticks being the poles that have held up the tarpaulins and plastic sheeting they’ve been living under for weeks.

Rafah in October 13 2023 (left) and January 14 2024 (right), showing how the population has grown from 280,000 to more than 1.5 million. Credit: Planet Labs PBC

The congestion is such that were a ground offensive to take place amongst them, there would indeed be a bloodbath, as various world leaders have warned.

The IDF has been asked to come up with an evacuation plan, but it doesn’t look like people have anywhere to go.

Rafah is up against the Egyptian border and the Israelis believe there is a huge tunnel network underneath.

This is where tunnelling in Gaza began, probably in the eighties, when smugglers used cross-border tunnels to bring in merchandise.

No doubt Hamas has used such tunnels to bring in a lot of weaponry, which is why the IDF does not want to leave that network intact.

Most of the remaining Hamas fighters and leadership are probably in Rafah, but so too, in all likelihood, are the remaining Israeli hostages.

Any big land offensive will be a threat to them too.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fighting talk about Rafah reflects Israeli opinion, but it should also be regarded as a negotiating tactic.

A haggle is taking place over the terms of another truce or ceasefire.

Last week Mr Netanyahu turned down Hamas’ proposals, calling them crazy.

But he didn’t walk away from negotiations.

This week his Mossad chief is expected to join the chief of the CIA, Egyptian intelligence and the Qatari Prime Minister for talks in Cairo.

The CIA boss William Burns is an experienced diplomat and is not flying the Atlantic for the air miles.

He must believe there’s a reasonable chance that Hamas can be persuaded to drop some demands and agree to something like a 40-day truce.

During this, the remaining Israeli women hostages and elderly men could be freed in exchange for some Palestinian prisoners and an IDF pull out from the urban centres in Gaza.

This wouldn’t be the permanent ceasefire Hamas is seeking, but they might be talked into concluding it’s a definite step towards one, insofar as Israel would find it hard to resume the war after such a break.

A senior Biden administration official said yesterday that "real progress" had been made in the talks in recent weeks.

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October, 2023. Credit: AP

The deal was "pretty much there", though there were still some significant gaps to close.

In the meantime the spectre of a ground operation in Rafah looms large.

President Biden has pushed back against it and during a phone call with the Israeli Prime Minister last night said that "a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there". Here in Israel it’s being reported that Mr Netanyahu believes world opinion is turning against the IDF campaign to such an extent that they only have one month left to prosecute the intensive ground war. He probably regards the start of Ramadan on March 10 as the deadline.

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