On Sunday night, under the cover of several airstrikes, Israel launched a raid on the town of Rafah in the besieged Gaza Strip. During the raid, Israel said it had released two Israeli-Argentinian hostages kidnapped from Israel in an attack led by Hamas on October 7.
Local health authorities reported that the airstrikes killed at least 67 Palestinian civilians and leveled several residential buildings and at least one mosque. On social media, Argentina’s President Javier Milei thanked Israel for keeping the two hostages, both of whom have two nationalities.
In an interview with the US television network ABC News, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that he intended to “take out the remaining terrorist battalions in Rafah, which is the last bastion,” indicating that the next land invasion is imminent. Israeli plans for a ground invasion have drawn international criticism, with aid agencies and key allies calling for restraint.
Why is Israel launching a military campaign in Gaza?
On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched an attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip. The attack led by the militant group – which the US, Germany, Israel, the EU and others have designated as a terrorist organization – left about 1,200 people dead, according to Israeli estimates. In addition, Hamas has kidnapped an estimated 230 hostages in the Gaza Strip, which the group has controlled since 2007.
In response, Israel launched an air and ground offensive against Hamas in the territory. So far, more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in the campaign, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and about 1.9 million Palestinian civilians have been forced to flee their homes. More than 85% of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are now internally displaced, according to the UN.
What does a ground operation mean for the population of Rafah?
Since October 7, Israel has steadily expanded operations on Gaza land southward, leaving Rafah as one of the last refuges for more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents who fled the violence. The city’s population, which was about 300,000 before the war, grew to about 1.5 million. Many refugees live in makeshift camps and UN shelters.
Rafah is located along the border with Egypt, and is adjacent to the only remaining border crossing into the sealed off Gaza that is still partially accessible. Egypt has recently strengthened its border security due to concerns that the Israeli operation could cause a mass migration of Gazans into its territory.
On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry warned that further developments in Rafah would have “devastating consequences” as his government threatened to withdraw from a decade-old peace accord with Israel. if the ground offensive continues.
Are there safe zones in the north?
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, meanwhile, announced that Palestinians in Gaza seeking to evacuate Rafah would be given “safe passage” to “the areas we have cleared north of Rafah.” He added “we made a detailed plan.”
The details of such a plan have so far not been made public. It remains unclear where such safe zones will be located, how safe passage is guaranteed, whether these areas are suitable for housing hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The United Nations Satellite Center UNOSAT estimates that 30% of all structures in Gaza have been damaged since Israel launched its war against Hamas, with “the most significant increase in damage” in the north-central Gaza governorate and southern Khan Yunis governorate.
Another study conducted by Corey Scher of the City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University estimated that more than half of the buildings in Gaza were destroyed..
What did the US say about the planned Rafah offensive?
On Sunday, US President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “a military operation in Rafah must not proceed without a credible and enforceable plan for ensuring safety and support for more than a million people are sheltering there.”
As the US supports Israel in its campaign to oust Hamas, President Biden has issued repeated calls for restraint in recent weeks. In December, Biden warned Israel that it was in danger of losing support “through indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza. This month, the US leader told reporters that “the conduct of the response to […] in the Gaza Strip, it’s on top.”
How did the EU respond?
On Saturday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell shared his concerns with X that an Israeli ground offensive targeting Rafah “would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian disaster and extreme tension in Egypt.” He added that “continuing negotiations to release the hostages and suspend hostilities is the only way to avoid bloodshed.”
At a news conference on Monday, Borrell expressed disbelief at Netanyahu’s calls to evacuate civilians from Rafah, asking: “They will evacuate – where? To the moon? Where will they evacuate these people?”
Will the Rafah offensive derail the hostage talks?
Over the weekend, a senior Hamas figure said an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would “explode” the ongoing hostage negotiations.
About 100 hostages are believed to be held in Gaza, although the numbers are difficult to verify.
According to Israeli officials, about 30 hostages are believed to have died. A temporary ceasefire agreement in November 2023, brokered by Qatar, saw 105 hostages released.
Edited by: Maren Sass