Israeli Strike in Rafah Kills 45 – A Tragic Mistake or a Strategic Blunder

 By Col Rajeev Agarwal (Retd)

On 26th May, in yet another wrongly targeted air-strike by Israel in the ongoing war in Gaza, seven missiles struck a tented camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, killing 45 Palestinians. Many more were injured by the strike and the ensuing blaze in the camp housing displaced civilians. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initially claimed that it had successfully targeted a Hamas compound and eliminated two commanders but as the videos and truth of the attack surfaced soon, IDF had to soon back track. Facing absolute outrage and condemnation, PM Netanyahu, in his address to the Israeli parliament had to admit that “despite our utmost efforts not to harm innocent civilians, last night there was a tragic mistake.” Ironically, the tented camp was the one which had been setup in close coordination with Israel and was designated as a humanitarian zone by Israel itself.

Once again there was strong all round condemnation and calls for ending the war immediately. Israel has however been dismissive of all such calls in the past and the US, its prime benefactor, has backed Israel. This time too, it stated that Israel has not yet crossed the ‘red line’, shocking most international observers.  It would therefore be interesting to see whether this tragic attack can become the catalyst in ending the war soon or whether Israel’s impunity will continue unabated. Also, with international efforts continually failing to restrain Israel, it also raises questions on how this war will eventually end.

Growing International Pressure

          Rafah offensive has long been declared a ‘red line’ not only by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and rest of the regional countries but also by the US and many western nations. The US has even put its arms shipment to Israel on hold and had warned that arms shipments could be stopped if there is a full-scale invasion of Rafah. But PM Netanyahu made it clear that support or no support, Israel will go through with the Rafah operations, stating, “If we need to … we will stand alone. We will fight with our fingernails”.

As a part of its vow to seek out and eliminate Hamas leadership and combat cadres from Rafah, the IDF commenced its preparatory operations in first week of May itself. A new tent city with over 10,000 tents was set up in areas North of Rafah, which can hold thousands of people. Israel followed it up with dropping leaflets over Gaza and Rafah asking people to evacuate Rafah and on 06th May, the IDF issued orders for evacuation of 100,000 Palestinians in eastern Rafah. Soon, Israeli tanks entered Eastern Rafah in the early hours of 7th May and took control over the Rafah crossing on the Palestinian side, opposite Egypt. IDF forces and airstrikes have targeted Rafah ever since, on a daily basis. The latest airstrike on the tented camp in Rafah on 26th May is only a continuation in the series of such strikes in Rafah over the past two weeks.

Surprisingly and most shockingly, the current strike was launched less than 48 hours after a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 24th May which categorically said that Israel must “immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate.” It also ordered Israel to open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian aid and also called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. ICJ is the top court of the UN and its orders are legally binding but unfortunately, it lacks direct enforcement mechanisms. It may be recalled that the UN Security Council too had passed a resolution (after four failed attempts) on 25th March calling for an immediate ceasefire and unconditional release of hostages, but once again, it remains un-implemented.

The current Rafah strike also comes in the backdrop of three key western countries joining more than 140 other countries in recognizing Palestine as a state. In a latest development, Norway, Spain and Ireland announced formal recognition of Palestine with the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stating that the establishment of a Palestinian state is “the only route to peace” in the Middle East. France and UK too have hinted on separate occasions that they too might recognize Palestine if Israel does not exercise restraint and end the war soon.

On 26th May, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Espen Barth Eide, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, co-chaired a meeting Arab and European Foreign Ministers and representatives in Brussels, in coordination with the EU High Representative Joseph Borrell. The meeting stressed the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire including an end to the attacks on Rafah, release of hostages and ending the war in Gaza. Separately, the Saudi Foreign Minister, in a statement reiterated that Israel doesn’t get to decide whether or not the Palestinians have a right to self-determination. Israel needs to accept that it cannot exist without the existence of a Palestinian state.

It may be recalled that just week back, when there were reports of a Saudi US security deal almost finalized, the Saudi side had made it clear that the deal hinges on one important pre-condition, “a two-state solution that meets the aspirations and legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”.

In the past 48 hours, there have also been reports of direct faceoff between the Egyptian forces and the IDF. On 27th May, one Egyptian soldier was killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers near the Rafah Border Crossing. Egypt has amassed its troops, tanks and guns across the Rafah border and any escalation could be disastrous not only for Gaza war could also threaten the four decade old peace treaty between the two countries.  

Thus, there is mounting pressure on Israel from within the region as well as internationally and it is only increasing with every passing day and with every repeat of an indiscriminate strike by Israel into Gaza.

Increasing Disillusionment in Israel

Within Israel too, there is growing pressure on Netanyahu to end the war and get back the hostages. Some of his key ministers in the war cabinet have come out in open against him in recent weeks. His own military Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi was quoted on 11th May, criticizing Netanyahu for the failure to develop and declare a so-called “day after” strategy. He added that as long as there isn’t a diplomatic move to develop a governing body in the Strip that isn’t Hamas, we’ll have to act again and again in other places to dismantle Hamas’s infrastructure.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant too has openly criticized Netanyahu over his indecision on who will govern Gaza the day after Hamas is defeated. Speaking to the media on 15th May, he said that “the military campaign must end with a diplomatic action. The day after Hamas can only be achieved via elements that would constitute an alternative to Hamas. This is first and foremost an Israeli interest. The key to this goal is military action and the establishment of a governing alternative in Gaza.” He added that delay in decision making will only erode our military achievements and sabotage the chances for the release of hostages. Reacting almost immediately, Netanyahu was emphatic that there will be no discussion on who governs Gaza before Hamas is eliminated, adding that he is “not ready to replace Hamastan with Fatahstan.”

Meanwhile, on 18th May, War cabinet minister Benny Gantz issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu, demanding an agreed-upon vision for the Gaza conflict that would include stipulating who might rule the territory after Hamas’s defeat, and warning that he quit the coalition if there are no concrete answers by 08th June.

To add to the woes of Netanyahu, there is increasing pressure from the families of 130 hostages still in the captivity of Hamas. There are reports that some have already died in captivity while some are in critical condition. Israel’s refusal to accept ceasefire deal repeatedly is adding to the rising discontent with calls for his resignation growing louder.

What Next

          Israel’s’ insistence on continuing with the offensive in Rafah, the errant strike killing 45 people on 26th May and increasing pressure both domestically and internationally, is fast closing options for Israel. On the military front, the launch of rockets by Hamas from Gaza on Tel Aviv on 26th May is once again a stark reminder that it may not be possible to ‘eliminate Hamas from the face of the Earth’. The skirmish with Egyptian army on Rafah crossing does not bode well for the future and it is in best interests of Israel, Egypt and the region to see that it does not escalate. Hezbollah continues to target Israel in the North effectively and disrupt its communication and surveillance machinery. In a surprise attack on 16th May, Hezbollah carried out its first ever airstrike into Israel using a kamikaze drone armed with S5 rockets, an air-to-surface missile, to attack Metula garrison. Reports on 28th May also indicate that Hezbollah has successfully targeted Israeli Meron Air-Control Base with Katyusha rockets, causing heavy damage.

          In the backdrop of all current developments in the Gaza war, the tragic mistake in Rafah on 26th May could not have come at a worse time for Israel. It pushed Israel into a corner and when confronted with strong evidence, it had to accept its mistake, that too not for the first time in past eight months. In a long military campaign, mistakes like this often prove to be strategic blunders and critical turning points. With every passing day, Netanyahu is finding himself more and more isolated and boxed in. With international pressure failing to make any dent in Israel’s insistence to continue fighting, perhaps an internal dissent and fracture may be the only solution to bring about change in Israel and end to the war.

(Views are Personal)