Rafah: Is a Common Israeli-American Approach Possible?

by March 2024
Palestinians during Ramadan in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, March 2024. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

The final major combat phase of the Gaza war, an Israeli attack on remaining organized 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 significant 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 Gaza campaign has been growing, reaching a climax with the upcoming Rafah operation, where more than one million displaced Gazan civilians are huddled. These strains between Washington and Jerusalem are now in the open, with the President’s State of the Union address, then Senator Schumer’s criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu. 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 and further Israeli-Arab ties. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition have long opposed such a Palestinian Authority role, 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 justifiably 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 percent of Gaza north of Rafah. Prime Minister 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 organized 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.

Displaced Palestinians shelter in a tent camp in Rafah, March 2024. Photo credit: REUTERS/ Bassam Masoud.

The 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 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 elimination of the Hamas threat. The administration thus is 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 and disrupt humanitarian deliveries.

In an effort to resolve this difference in tactics, the President proposed on March 18 that Prime Minister Netanyahu send his key advisor, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, and his national security advisor, Tzahi Hanegbi, to Washington to meet next week with top administration officials. 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.

This majority includes most Republicans, although Donald Trump has not been vocal on this issue. While the Netanyahu government is unpopular at home, most Israelis support defeating Hamas, even at the cost of delayed return of refugees. 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 fatal for its security. 

On the diplomatic front the two sides have room to maneuver. 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 despite some military moves 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’s 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.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, March 22, 2024. Photo credit: Chuck Kennedy/State Department/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect.

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 prioritize more the avoidance of civilian casualties. But that still will 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 prioritizing minimal 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 and Jerusalem works thereafter more amiably with Washington. 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 U.S. 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 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 demonize the other. Ultimately Americans and Israelis are in the same fight and everyone should act accordingly.

James Jeffrey
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, as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, and as a US infantry officer in Vietnam. He is currently the chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
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