Australia/Israel Review

Rafah: Squaring the circle

Apr 26, 2024 | James Jeffrey

A meeting between Israeli leaders and officials and their US counterparts to discuss Gaza (Image: Flickr)
A meeting between Israeli leaders and officials and their US counterparts to discuss Gaza (Image: Flickr)

The final major combat phase of the Gaza war, an Israeli attack on remaining organised Hamas forces in Rafah, is approaching. It was delayed due to the humanitarian crisis impacting the Gaza population and negotiations over a limited pause in fighting for release of Israeli hostages. But the “how” of the Israeli operation has produced a near breakdown between Washington and Jerusalem. The key questions in play are, first, is the Biden Administration’s preference to block any effective Rafah operation, or alternatively, to support an operation to defeat Hamas while limiting numbers of civilian deaths; second, will Israel accept American restraints?

The stakes are high. Final success against Hamas opens the door to governance of Gaza eventually by Palestinians themselves and possible peace with Israel, new life to Israeli-Palestinian relations and progress under the Abraham Accords with Arab states, and possibly durable deterrence of Iran. Success will also strengthen relations between the United States and Israel, critical for the latter’s survival, and for the former’s regional containment mission.

US concern about civilian casualties in the Gaza campaign has been growing, reaching a climax with the upcoming operation in Rafah, where more than one million displaced Gazan civilians are huddled. These strains between Washington and Jerusalem are now in the open, following the President’s State of the Union address on March 7, then Senator Chuck Schumer’s criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu on March 14. They are reinforced by other disagreements with Netanyahu, including the Administration’s desire for the Palestinian Authority to eventually assume control of Gaza, as a first step towards a two-state solution. 

Netanyahu and his coalition have long opposed such a role for the Palestinian Authority, seen as both ineffective and an obstacle to Israeli settler ambitions. After October 7, much of the Israeli public has come to support their Government’s plan, a vague joint governance of Gaza by the Israeli military and local “clean” officials, a plan few outside Israel think feasible. Washington has also been critical of Israeli foot-dragging on humanitarian assistance, although Israel has recently been doing better.

But the most critical bilateral difference is the next steps against the remaining Hamas forces, holed up in Rafah. Israel seeks another full-scale operation similar to its prior clearance of some 80% of Gaza north of Rafah. 

Netanyahu argues, with considerable validity and strong Israeli public support, that Israel must attack Rafah to defeat the last four battalions (roughly 4,000 troops) of organised Hamas forces and cut Hamas smuggling ties to Egypt. This would complete its war goals of dismantling Hamas as a serious threat and securing the release of hostages.

The US Administration appears horrified by the impact of a major Rafah offensive on civilians. Their situation is already dire, and a major operation could generate huge numbers of new civilian casualties and hinder already stressed humanitarian delivery. But Washington still insists it supports Israel’s goal of dismantling Hamas and understands that larger peace in the region, including progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track and containment of Iran and its proxies, depends on the elimination of the Hamas threat. 

The Administration is thus trying to square the circle by proposing alternative Rafah tactics, cutting off smuggling routes along the Egyptian border and more targeted Israeli attacks against Hamas, which would not generate massive civilian casualties or disrupt humanitarian deliveries.

Whether the two sides can agree on a Rafah way forward will depend first on the degree Prime Minister Netanyahu is willing to modify his military approach, but also on President Biden’s willingness to support further fighting which inevitably will generate some civilian casualties, regardless of how careful Israel might be. 

Following are the key considerations the two governments will face:

  • First is the political arena. The pressure on the President is mainly from the left wing of his Democratic Party in a dramatic presidential election year. Yet despite the horrific scenes of civilian casualties, roughly half of the American public supports Israel’s war conduct.
  • While the Netanyahu Government is unpopular at home, most Israelis support defeating Hamas, even at the cost of delayed return of hostages. But Israelis also know that if the friction with the Biden Administration and Democratic Party is not smoothed over, Israel will become a political football between a pro-Israel Republican Party and an increasingly anti-Israeli Democratic Party, potentially fatally for its security. 
  • On the diplomatic front, the two sides have room to manoeuvre. European and Arab states, while rhetorically critical of Israel and supportive of a permanent ceasefire now, understand that Hamas has to be defeated for Iran to be contained, and thus behind the scenes largely follow Washington’s lead. Moreover, Iran and its proxies have been ineffective in relieving pressure on their ally Hamas in the face of Washington’s military operations. 

The key issue thus remains the tactics to finish Hamas. The Biden Administration and outside experts at times questioned whether the Israelis can even achieve their goal of “dismantling” Hamas’ military power, here citing American counter-insurgency experiences. The Israelis, in response, acknowledge at least implicitly that they cannot destroy Hamas as an ideology and insurgent force, as they deal with it as such every day in the West Bank. Rather, their goal is more strategic, to remove Hamas as an offensive threat dominating Gaza and capable of new October 7 attacks, perhaps next time in league with Hezbollah or Iran itself – an Israeli existential nightmare.

Furthermore, the Israelis are generally applying the US military’s own successful model of heavy firepower and massive ground attack against the Islamic State in 2015-2019. The Islamic State still counts thousands of fighters in the Iraqi and Syrian countryside, but no longer controls terrain or threatens those states. 

In fact, the head of the West Point Urban Warfare Center John Spencer recently wrote that Israel has been following experience-proven tactics without generating historically unprecedented civilian casualties.

The Washington alternative reportedly includes Israeli control of the Egyptian border to stop smuggling of weapons, but also more “targeted” Israeli operations against Hamas in Rafah and detailed plans to protect civilians. Israel in fact could use less destructive ordinance with tighter controls and prioritise more the avoidance of civilian casualties. But that will still produce significant civilian casualties, as did US-led campaigns applying similar restraint against the Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa, and will increase Israeli losses.

If Washington in proposing “targeted operations” means a dramatically different approach, e.g., special forces raiding similar to the American attack on Bin Laden, then Israel will likely conclude Washington is prioritising minimising civilian casualties over Israeli victory, however much Administration officials deny it. 

In that case, Israel might defy President Biden, throwing the two countries’ critical relations into a deep crisis even if the Israeli offensive is successful. But if Israel accedes to an ineffective American approach, then Washington will own the Gaza Hamas problem and its dangerous spinoffs throughout the region.

To avoid either catastrophe, Israeli and US officials first should each compromise: Washington to support an operation in Rafah that will defeat Hamas and force it to negotiate a hostage release; Israel to accept restraints on timing, tactics and weapons use, and to implement a feasible civilian movement plan. 

Better coordination on massively enhanced humanitarian deliveries and serious cooperation on day-after Gaza security and governance are also essential. Finally, both must hold back on domestic political temptation to demonise the other. Ultimately Americans and Israelis are in the same fight, and everyone should act accordingly.

Ambassador James Jeffrey was Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States from 2007-2008. He also served as US ambassador to Iraq, Turkey and Albania, and as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. He is currently the chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. © Jerusalem Strategic Tribune (, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. 


Israeli PM Netanyahu with Gilad Shalit following the lop-sided 2011 prisoner swap deal that led to his freedom (Image: Isranet)

Essay: Redeeming the hostages

Apr 26, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
The anti-Israel schadenfreude which followed the Iranian attack on Israel represents a disturbing side of human nature (Image: X/Twitter)

The Last Word: The iniquity of schadenfreude

Apr 26, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
Yayha Sinwar: The “Butcher of Khan Yunis” who became the mastermind of October 7 (Image: Shutterstock)

Demented or just diabolical

Apr 26, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
Image: Shutterstock

Biblio File: Navigating the diplomatic labyrinth

Apr 26, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
NZ Foreign Minister Winston Peters at the UN (Screenshot)

AIR New Zealand: Grading NZ’s new government 

Apr 26, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
Image: Shutterstock

Media Microscope: Beyond all recognition?

Apr 26, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review