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The Israeli Offensive into Rafah—And Why It’s So Important

Written by Akshar Patel Edited by Annika Lilja

Rafah is one of the southernmost cities located inside the Gaza Strip, bordering Egypt. As one of the last cities not fully under the control of the Israeli military, it has increasingly become the only place available for over a million Gazan refugees wishing to escape the violence where they once lived. 

Biden, among several other Western leaders, warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to have Israeli forces aggressively invade Rafah as they did in Gaza City. Labeling such a move as a “red-line,” President Biden threatened the withdrawal of military aid such as American-made bombs to Israel if their operations continued to endanger Palestinian civilians. 

However, Netanyahu rejected this warning, stating that Israel needed to invade Rafah to eradicate the threat of Hamas, the terrorist organization Israel has been fighting since the massacres on October 7. In an interview on March 10 with the news agency Politico, Netanyahu proposed his own red line, stating, “You know what the red line is? That October 7 doesn't happen again. Never happens again.”

In early May, the IDF, Israel’s military, began to make their first forays into the city. By the 6th of May, Israeli troops had captured most of Rafah’s border with Egypt, where key supplies for both civilians in Rafah and Hamas were being sourced. However, the Gazan-Egyptian border is, by treaty, supposed to be demilitarized. Tensions between Egypt and Israel were further inflamed when troops on both sides of the border exchanged fire in an accidental clash—leading to the death of one Egyptian soldier. 

As Israel pushed deeper into central Rafah, the Biden administration was hesitant to stop the flow of weapons to Israel. On the 27th of May, Israel launched an airstrike on a refugee camp that reportedly hosted members of Hamas—leading to the deaths of 45 civilians along with 2 senior Hamas militants. According to the Associated Press, Netanyahu apologized for the strike, labeling it as a “tragic mishap” in an address to the Israeli parliament. PBS reported that John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council spokesman, also expressed sorrow for the attack, calling it a “horrific incident” in a press conference in late May. 

However, Kirby stressed that the strike did not cross the red line the president set several months earlier. He clarified that the red line specifically meant a large-scale boots-on-the-ground operation. When asked by reporters how the presence of Israeli tanks near Rafah did not represent said operation, PBS reported that Kirby stated the tanks were only being used for maintaining order on the Egyptian border, and not in “the town proper”.

However, other world leaders were more open to criticizing Israel’s actions. French President Emmanuel Macron stated he was, “outraged by the Israeli strikes that have killed many displaced persons in Rafah” in a post on his X account the same day as the strike, calling for “full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire.” Other European countries, like Spain, Norway, and Ireland, formally recognized the state of Palestine as a country in protest over Israeli actions. 

Despite international condemnation, the Israeli government shows little signs of faltering in their offensive, which they see as crucial to stopping the terrorist group Hamas. On the 31st of May, Israel confirmed its forces were in Central Rafah. UN humanitarian operations were notably disrupted due to the fighting, leaving refugees and civilians defenseless in the crossfire.

A proposed 3-stage ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel, brokered by Qatar and the US, came close to being adopted but failed when neither side wanted to back down from the fighting. 

Rafah is so important because it is the last city in the Gaza Strip not controlled by the IDF. If Israel were to successfully capture the city, they would have complete control of the Gaza Strip. This would allow them to clear out the last vestiges of Hamas, but it would also create a humanitarian nightmare that would need extensive action to remedy. The UN World Food Program has warned that over 1 million Gazans could face all-out famine by July if the conflict continues, and a takeover of Rafah would only exacerbate this problem. If Israel fails to take Rafah, it could undermine the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s already shaky coalition government, which has promised to return every Israeli hostage taken. No matter the outcome, with one of the most comprehensive plans of peace in the region obstructed by the aims of both factions, it is clear that the devastating Israeli-Hamas war shows no sign of slowing down.



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