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Rafah offensive ramps up after weekend optimism for hostage deal fizzles

Hamas claims to "accept" ceasefire deal which Israel never agreed to; Evacuation begins as rocket attack launched from Rafah kills four soldiers; CIA chief heads to the region.
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Camps in Rafah

Tents of displaced Gazans in Rafah (Ramadan Abed/Reuters).

Published: 7 May 2024

Last updated: 7 May 2024

Hamas caused confusion on Monday evening by claiming to accept what it said was an Egyptian and Qatari ceasefire and hostage release proposal, but Israeli officials said the Hamas terms did not meet Israel’s essential requirements. The Hamas announcement set off celebrations among Palestinians in Gaza.

Israeli sources are saying that they don't know what Hamas has agreed to, but it's not the Egyptian compromise they originally saw. There will be another round of accusations and counter-accusations, but meanwhile, Israeli troops won't be going into Rafah, and the operation will still be something that Israel certainly intends to do, but not quite yet.

This followed optimistic reports in Arab media on Saturday of a ceasefire and hostage release deal, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that Hamas' chief in Gaza and the man who calls the shots on any deal, Yahya Sinwar, is prepared to agree to any compromise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can accept.

Both men are determined to emerge with a perception of victory in their grasp – but there doesn't appear to be any framework in which the two can have that.

Negotiations had taken a positive turn over the past week, but may now be at another stalemate, with Israeli hostage families and Gazans taking refuge in Rafah fearing the worst. The IDF announced that troops were striking and operating against Hamas sites “in a targeted manner” in eastern Rafah.

Rafah remains a pressure point

After months of promises to Israelis and threats to the world from Netanyahu that only an Israeli invasion of Rafah could deliver "total victory" over Hamas, the first open step towards such an operation took place Monday morning. Gazan residents of the Rafah’s eastern neighbourhoods next to the Egyptian border received voice messages calling them to evacuate and head toward Gaza's shore region. International and Palestinian aid organisations were informed of the evacuation details.

While Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Sunday that an operation in Rafah is expected soon, it seems the army's activity in the area is aimed at pressuring Hamas amid negotiations for a hostage deal, and does not entail a takeover of Gaza's southernmost district.

Israel announced that the Kerem Shalom border crossing will remain closed after a rocket barrage fired from Rafah into Israel killed four soldiers and others on Sunday. Hamas claimed the rocket attack, which struck troops gathered near the border crossing used to deliver thousands of truckloads of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

These escalations are likely to challenge further negotiations.

Domestic pressures prevail

Despite domestic and international pressure to agree to a hostage-ceasefire deal, a vocal part of Netanyahu’s coalition has urged Israel’s military to continue into Rafah, prioritising the destruction of Hamas over the return of Israeli hostages.

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s far-right finance minister, said that accepting the proposed deal would mean “raising a white flag, and a victory for Hamas”.

Angry protests erupted in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem late on Monday as families of hostages held in Gaza and anti-government activists calling for a deal to free the captives took to the streets to rally against the government’s rejection of a Hamas ceasefire offer.

In an opinion piece published in Haaretz, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged Israelis to oppose an invasion of Rafah, claiming that it is highly likely that Hamas has hardly any rockets or launch sites left and is incapable of operating the few it has, as the military controls most of the areas from which rockets could be fired at Israel.

Salvaging a deal

CIA Director William Burns is visiting Israel, aimed at increasing American pressure primarily on Netanyahu, who released several statements in recent days saying he intended to order an invasion of Rafah regardless of whether Israel and Hamas reach a deal for the release of hostages being held in Gaza and a ceasefire.

Last Wednesday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel and had a "tough" conversation with Netanyahu regarding a possible Israeli operation in Rafah, two sources briefed on the meeting said.

Blinken told Netanyahu during their meeting that "a major military operation" in Rafah would lead to the US publicly opposing it and would negatively impact US-Israel relations. Since then, Axios has reported that the Biden administration last week put a hold on a shipment of US-made ammunition to Israel.

US officials have also said that when agreements on ending the fighting in Gaza are reached, it will be possible to rapidly move toward agreements on the issues that matter to Israel, Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government on the northern front.

American pier support

The US is on track to begin delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza from the sea in early May, as construction of its floating pier continues. There will be no US boots on the ground in Gaza, but Israel Defense Forces will partner with the US military to anchor the causeway to the shore in Gaza.

Once established, the World Food Programme (WFP) will support distribution of aid from the pier, the organisation said on Saturday, and USAID will work with the United Nations to distribute the aid once it reaches Gaza.

The WFP’s Executive Director Cindy McCain recently said that Northern Gaza is experiencing a “full-blown famine” although her remarks do not constitute an official declaration of famine. She said they were based on what WFP staff have seen on the ground.


Does Hamas' dramatic cease-fire acceptance doom Israel's Rafah plan? (Haaretz)

Gaza cease-fire talks reportedly in 'tough' spot, CIA chief heads to Israel to rescue deal (Haaretz)

4 soldiers killed, 10 others hurt in Hamas rocket attack from south Gaza’s Rafah (Times of Israel)

Far-right Israeli ministers urge Netanyahu not to accept ceasefire proposal (CNN)

Scoop: U.S. put a hold on an ammunition shipment to Israel By Barak Ravid (Axios)

Gaza cease-fire deal critical to reaching agreement with Hezbollah, Biden Administration officials say (Haaretz)

Protesters block roads to demand Israel accept ceasefire-hostage deal, halt Rafah push (Times of Israel)

Israelis must flood the streets to keep the IDF out of Rafah By Ehud Olmert (Haaretz)

Images show US military building floating pier off Gaza. Pentagon says it will cost $320 million (CNN)

‘Full-blown famine’ happening in Gaza, WFP warns, amid fresh push for truce (CNN)


Netanyahu faces his moment of truth after Hamas accepts ceasefire deal (Haaretz)
It may well be that the Israeli prime minister does not want a deal at this time – but it's also feasible that the threat of a ground invasion of Rafah is the final leverage on Hamas. 'If Netanyahu wants a deal,' says one official involved in the talks, 'this is more or less the best one he can get'.

Both Netanyahu and Sinwar need to win, so the Gaza war will carry on (Haaretz)
Most Israelis and Gazans understand that they have lost too much for there to be any notion of 'victory' in this war. But as long as their fates are controlled by two men who insist on being the victor, at any cost, this war is going to continue.

Israel is winning the war if you ignore original unrealistic goals set by the gov't - analysis by Yonah Jeremey Bob (Jerusalem Post)
If the question is "Did Israel radically improve its security situation vis a vis Hamas compared to all prior rounds of conflict," the answer is unquestionably yes, and then some.

Success of Egypt’s peace deal would set blueprint for future of Middle East – expert Q&A (The Conversation)
John Strawson, Middle East expert at the University of East London, has been researching and publishing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for several decades, who believes the crisis has reached a critical moment.


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