World

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 16 MAY 2024

Full-blown invasion of Rafah appears likely; US warns Israel of Gaza power vacuum

Full-blown invasion of Rafah appears likely; US warns Israel of Gaza power vacuum
Internally displaced Palestinians leave with their belongings following an evacuation order issued by the Israeli army in the southern Gazan city of Rafah. (Photo: Mohammed Saber/EPA-EFE)

Israel’s gradual deployment of troops into Rafah appears to be the start of a full-blown invasion of the southern Gazan city, and the threat to civilians and blocking of aid have increased tensions with both the European Union and Egypt.

The US warned Israel it risked creating a power vacuum across swathes of Gaza and urged the country’s leaders to focus more on post-war planning for the Palestinian territory.

The United Auto Workers filed a US labour board complaint over Harvard University’s handling of pro-Palestinian protests, claiming the university violated grad students’ rights as employees. 

Israel’s slow walk in Rafah opens door to full-on offensive

Israel’s gradual deployment of troops into Rafah appears to be the start of a full-blown invasion of the southern Gazan city, and the threat to civilians and blocking of aid have increased tensions with both the European Union and Egypt.

Israeli tanks and infantry were making their way neighbourhood by neighbourhood through the eastern part of Rafah, with the aim of eliminating the remaining Hamas battalions while seeking out leaders and hostages. The military gave advance warning to the more than one million Palestinians in the city, and hundreds of thousands have fled.

The step-by-step approach is in keeping with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to invade Rafah without incurring major civilian casualties. The US, EU and other allies have been urging him for months not to proceed with an invasion, due to the risk to those seeking refuge. The humanitarian aid that flowed from Egypt through the Rafah crossing has stopped.

“What we have to do to win this war — we have to destroy Hamas’ fighting formations,” Netanyahu said in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday. “We’re doing it carefully, we’re evacuating the people” and 500,000 had “moved away because that’s where we asked them to move”.

The EU warned Israel “to refrain from further exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and reopen the crossing point of Rafah”, according to a statement. “Should Israel continue its military operation in Rafah, it would inevitably put a heavy strain on the EU’s relationship with Israel.”

Israel has said aid is getting into Gaza through other entry points and gave no indication it would heed calls to pause its campaign. Illustrated by short videos, the military said its forces in Rafah were eliminating infrastructure and killing Hamas fighters.

Troops “began a targeted operation on a Hamas training compound in the area, eliminating terrorists in close-quarters combat, and locating large amounts of weapons and equipment”, it said. Aircraft had destroyed 80 military compounds, weapons-storage facilities, missile launchers and observation posts, it added.

Asked about the Rafah operations, Netanyahu told CNBC the “intense part of the fighting, the smashing of the battalions, is just weeks away”.

Israeli authorities accused Egypt of causing the halt of aid via Rafah to pile pressure on the Jewish state, while Egypt has countered that it is Israel’s responsibility. The discord threatens to worsen a relationship that has remained calm since the two nations signed a US-mediated peace treaty in 1979.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on X that he’d spoken with European colleagues “about the need to persuade Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing”, adding “The key to preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is now in the hands of our Egyptian friends.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry rejected that position. In a statement from his office, he criticised “desperate attempts” to shift the blame to Egypt, and called on Israel to facilitate the passage of aid through all land crossings it controls.

Egypt hasn’t recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, unlike Jordan and Turkey — other countries whose relations with Israel have been severely strained by the war against Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the US and EU. The seven-month conflict was triggered when the Iran-backed militant group invaded Israel on 7 October, killing 1,200 and abducting 250, while Israel’s retaliatory campaign in Gaza has left about 35,000 Palestinians dead, according to Hamas-run health authorities.

Hamas fighters have meanwhile re-emerged across the Gaza Strip, firing missiles at Israeli cities and wounding or killing troops. Intense battles have raged in recent days in the Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City as well as in Zeitoun toward the centre of the enclave. The Israeli military has reported the killing of scores of fighters.

The fate of the more than two million Palestinians in Gaza battling hunger and disease remains a major global concern. Egypt said recently it would support South Africa in its case with the International Court of Justice that Israel was violating the Genocide Convention, angering Israeli officials.

The court has left open the possibility that Israel is guilty although it hasn’t issued a decision. The next hearings in the case are due on Thursday and Friday.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is due to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel later this week. His goal is to curb the Rafah operation and revive efforts for a regional geopolitical shift in which Riyadh would embrace Israel and the US would grant the Saudis a defence pact.

For progress on that front, a Gaza ceasefire is needed. Talks for that, along with an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners, are deadlocked. Israeli officials say the only thing Hamas responds to is military pressure — another reason for its Rafah operation. Hamas says such pressure is counterproductive.

US warns Israel of Gaza power vacuum and wants post-war plan

The US warned Israel it risked creating a power vacuum across swathes of Gaza and urged the country’s leaders to focus more on post-war planning for the Palestinian territory.

“We can’t have anarchy and a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday during a trip to Kyiv, Ukraine.

He spoke as Israeli forces battled in areas of northern Gaza — including Jabalia, near Gaza City — that were cleared of Hamas fighting units months ago, underscoring the group’s ability to reassemble. That’s led to some criticism of Israel’s tactics of rapidly moving troops out of areas when Hamas has been routed.

Part of the problem is that Israel lacks the manpower to hold and administer large parts of Gaza. The country of just under 10 million people mobilized a record 350,000 reservists soon after the war started in October — something that strained its economy. It released most of them late last year or in early 2024, leaving around 150,000 regular troops in the military.

“You have to clear and hold,” former US General David Petraeus, who commanded armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, said at the Qatar Economic Forum. “If you don’t keep the enemy from reconstituting and keep it from getting back into the population, this is going to happen endlessly. You’ll just clear and have to re-clear and re-clear.”

Petraeus, speaking to Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, said the US experience of urban warfare in Iraq showed you had to “keep the enemy away from the people” by ensuring aid got to devastated areas quickly and by maintaining security when the fighting stopped.

He cited Al Shifa Hospital, one of the largest in Gaza, and said Israel should have held onto it after battling Hamas and turned it into “a great medical centre”.

Blinken said the fighting in the north of Gaza in recent days underscored the need for a “day after” strategy. Petraeus, who was in Israel about a month ago and regularly speaks to serving officials there, echoed those words, saying: “I don’t see a mid-term plan.”

Israel said it doesn’t want to occupy Gaza and has suggested Arab countries can provide peacekeepers when the war ends. But no government has said it will consider that.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Wednesday that Israel should promote the establishment of an alternative government to Hamas in Gaza, stressing he would not agree to an Israeli military occupation.

In an unusually bold comment by a senior Israeli official on post-war planning, Gallant challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rule out military occupation, which he told reporters would be a “negative and dangerous option for Israel”.

Netanyahu rejected Gallant’s demands. He earlier told CNBC he favoured “a non-Hamas civilian administration there with an Israeli military responsibility”.

Harvard’s crackdown on Gaza protest violated US labour law, union claims

The United Auto Workers (UAW) filed a US labour board complaint over Harvard University’s handling of pro-Palestinian protests, claiming the university violated grad students’ rights as employees.

In a Wednesday filing with the National Labor Relations Board, the union accused the university of surveillance and retaliation against workplace-related collective action in its response to student activists.

Harvard also violated federal law by denying employees union representation in disciplinary investigation meetings, and unilaterally changing policies about their access to areas of campus in order to discourage them from protesting, the UAW alleged. The alleged retaliation targeted by the complaint includes moves such as suspending students for participating in the encampment, which can also cause them to lose their jobs, according to the union.

The UAW has been calling for a Gaza ceasefire since December. It  represents about 100,000 US academic employees, including around 5,000 Harvard PhD candidates and undergrads doing teaching and research. For weeks, students including UAW members maintained an encampment near the university president’s office, demanding the school disclose and discontinue investments in Israel. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    Why does Egypt not facilitate the aid? Why does Egypt not accept any Palestinian refugees? Why would Egypt support SA at the ICJ? Is Egypt not 46 times larger than Israel in land mass (Israel is approximately 21,937 sq km, while Egypt is approximately 1,001,450 sq km). Does Egypt know more about its co-religionists/brethren in Gaza than it’s letting on? Does it not want to import 2 million problems?

    • John P says:

      I am sure you would love Egypt to take every single remaining Palestinian in as a refugee, this would allow a lot more space and freedom to Israeli settlers would it not?

      • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

        Israel is a sovereign state. There is no such thing as a “settler”. It is a culturally appropriated term. Much like occupation, apartheid, genocide and ethnic cleansing. Used by antisemites like you.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Why should everyone decide the Palestinian fate other than the Palestinians themselves? Its so easy Israel must stop the occupation, reverse the illegal settlements to borders that were determined by the UN, Israel must pay for the destruction and leave the palestinians alone.

  • peter selwaski says:

    The “power vacuum” most people want to see is a planet vacuumed clear of Hamas and other terrorists.

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