Israel determined to take Rafah despite ‘potential breach’ with U.S.

By Thomson Reuters Mar 21, 2024 | 6:24 AM

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will take control of Rafah even if it causes a rift with the United States, a senior Israeli official said on Thursday, describing the Gazan city packed with refugees as a final Hamas bastion harbouring a quarter of the group’s fighters.

The prospect of tanks and troops storming Rafah worries Washington in the absence of a plan to move more than a million Palestinians who have sheltered there since being displaced elsewhere in the Gaza Strip during the five-month-old war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to ensure a civilian evacuation and humanitarian aid – measures that top Israeli aides are due to discuss in the White House in the coming days, at the behest of U.S. President Joe Biden.

“We’re quite confident that we can do this in a way that would be effective – not only militarily, but also on the humanitarian side. And they have less confidence that we can do it,” one of those Israeli envoys, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, said on the “Call Me Back with Dan Senor” podcast.

Dermer, a former ambassador to the United States, said Israel would hear out American ideas for Rafah, but the city on Gaza’s border with Egypt would be taken whether or not the allies reach agreement:

“It will happen even if Israel is forced to fight alone. Even if the entire world turns on Israel, including the United States, we’re going to fight until the battle’s won.”

As fighting raged in northern Gaza, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo for talks with Arab officials about a proposed ceasefire. Israel is open to a truce, but has ruled out ending the war with Hamas in power.

Dermer said leaving the Iran-backed Islamists standing would invite open-ended attacks against Israel from across the region: “And that’s why the determination to take them out is so strong, even if it leads to a potential breach with the United States.”

While backing Israel’s war goals, the Biden administration has been shaken by the soaring toll on Palestinian civilians.

The offensive has killed almost 32,000 Palestinians, the Gaza health ministry said, without providing a breakdown of civilians and fighters. Hamas killed 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7 and abducted 253, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel says it has killed, captured or scattered enough Hamas fighters to dismantle 18 of its 24 battalions, while 252 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the operation.

Hamas does not detail its losses or deployments and has dismissed Israel’s assessments as exaggerations. Yet Palestinian rocket salvoes have tapered off dramatically as most of Gaza has been overrun by Israeli forces. So have Israeli military losses.

Dermer said there were four intact Hamas battalions in Rafah, bolstered by fighters who had retreated from other parts of Gaza, amounting to 25% of the group’s pre-war strength.

“We’re not going to leave a quarter of them in place,” he said. “We’re going into Rafah because we have to … And I think what people don’t understand is that Oct. 7 is an existential moment for Israel.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey)