Rafah? Columbia U? Malmo? Between Hostages and Fighting, the Internationalization of the Gaza War (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- May 6 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The Gaza War has sent tentacles in every direction: Washington, Cairo, Doha, Lebanon, Yemen, Tehran, Riyadh, Columbia University. Can you somehow make sense of what is happening?

A. We are looking at interacting strategic dramas that cover a lot of geography. Factoring in Netanyahu government mismanagement, indifference and ignorance, the disaster for Israel’s public relations is palpably global.

At the core is the Gaza War: stagnant yet alive on multiple fronts, from the Gaza Strip to Iran via Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Right now, one key preoccupation is the question of a new IDF offensive in Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border. Another is the issue of a hostage deal, involving prisoner release and a ceasefire. On the day of writing, Monday, the Rafah offensive looked more likely than the hostage deal.

The issues of Rafah and hostages lead us to Netanyahu’s coalition, whose right-messianic component factions are threatening to topple it if the hostages are released at the cost of a ceasefire with Hamas. Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that if he loses his coalition, he is out of a job and becomes all the more vulnerable to judicial punishment. Yet he is well aware of Israeli public and international pressure to end the war at least temporarily and rescue those hostages still alive.

Desperate to balance all the pressures, on Saturday Netanyahu released defiant statements (quoting a ‘most senior official’) to the effect that the war would continue and a Rafah operation would take place. Yet earlier, he had not objected to a commitment by CIA Director Bill Burns to the contrary (see below).

Was Netanyahu double-crossing the US or merely throwing a bone to his extremists while a hostage deal was negotiated? By Monday, the former supposition appeared more accurate. One way or another, a surprise Hamas mortar attack Sunday near Rafah that caused multiple IDF casualties appeared to signal that Hamas too was done negotiating over the hostages: bent on the survival of his Islamist rule in Gaza, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar wants Netanyahu, not Burns, to commit to ending the war.

Q. And beyond Israel-Gaza?

A. At least for the moment, dashed hopes in every direction:

- Lebanon: At the broader Middle East level, before the weekend there were reports that a Gaza hostage and ceasefire deal would generate a complementary ceasefire deal on Israel’s Lebanon front as well. That could potentially end the refugee status of tens of thousands of Israelis from Upper Galilee and of Lebanese from across the border.

- Qatar: pressured by Washington, Doha reportedly threatened to expel the Hamas leadership if no Gaza deal were struck; the focus of negotiations with Hamas moved from Doha to Cairo, where it appeared briefly to be more productive. Yet by Monday, all these moves and maneuvers were going up in smoke. Not only did Hamas attack near Rafah, but Hezbollah as well renewed heavy shelling of northern Israel. Meanwhile, in a slap to Qatar--and to media freedom--Israel closed Al-Jazeera’s offices.

- The US: Looking yet further afield, the conflict has also moved to the United States and to more extensive US involvement. In Cairo, prior to the hostage deal collapse over the weekend, CIA Director Bill Burns was reportedly putting the final touches on a Hamas-Israel deal that would comprise around four months of hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, variations on an Israeli withdrawal and ceasefire, and extensive humanitarian aid. It would also possibly bring about US and Arab state involvement in laying the foundations for Gaza’s future governance, including Palestinian state-building.

- US/Saudi Arabia: In parallel, a US-Saudi defense deal was reportedly brewing; it could conceivably even involve Saudi-Israeli normalization in conjunction with a Gaza deal and some sort of commitment to an eventual Palestinian state. By Monday, this deal too was dormant.

- US campuses: Then too, the Gaza conflict has invaded American university campuses and become a major issue in November’s elections. Here, of direct and immediate relevance is the effect of these US-Middle East issues on Biden administration policy. Biden’s reelection needs include quiet campuses thanks to a Gaza ceasefire, and a reduction in sensitive and dangerous US military involvement in places like Yemen, Iraq and Iran.

- US and Middle East wars: Everything is being worked into America’s November elections. In recent months the issues have sharpened: the US was involved in repelling Iran’s missile and drone attack on Israel last month, and it is building a dock in northern Gaza for delivering humanitarian aid.

- The Hague: At risk from Netanyahu’s standpoint is ongoing American support for Israel’s controversial actions in Gaza and the West Bank--actions that now also threaten to trigger International Criminal Court indictments of key Israeli leaders in The Hague.

Q. And that is not all. Don’t forget Malmo in Sweden... 

A. Indeed, this week the annual Eurovision song contest will be held in Malmo, where a large Muslim migrant population is planning to ambush Israel’s entry and create yet another international protest focusing on the Gaza War.

Israelis are staying away. They have put Malmo on the non grata list along with Columbia University...

Q. Can you narrow the perspective geographically and strategically to what is both urgent and important?

A. Let’s stick with hostage rescue, Rafah, and the increasingly messianist-rightist tilt of Israeli politics that seems to affect, and infect, everything.

First, a strategic word about Rafah. Expanding the IDF offensive to this southern-most town in the Gaza Strip involves more than meets the eye. On the one hand, moving nearly a million Gazans north to clear Rafah of vulnerable civilians, and invading the town to root out Hamas’s four remaining battalions, would almost certainly involve epic human suffering, casualties and destruction at the civilian level.

In this regard, the next IDF-related war disaster is just waiting to happen. Not only has Israel been warned by the entire world. But battering the remaining organized military units of Hamas will not eliminate Hamas. This is a pointless exercise. Nay, a counterproductive exercise.

On the other hand, Rafah (Gazan Rafah and Egyptian Rafah) sits astride Gaza’s border with Egypt--what the IDF calls the ‘Philadelphi axis’. This is where, for decades, Hamas has smuggled weaponry into the Strip via a tunnel network that Egypt seems powerless to interdict, whether due to Islamist influence among Sinai’s Bedouin or due to just plain indifference.

(Incidentally, Gaza’s border with Egypt has not been controlled by Israel since the IDF’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal, thereby seriously challenging accusations that Gaza has effectively been an Israeli prison. Prisoners do not normally build huge rocket arsenals and tunnel fortresses the way Hamas did in Gaza.)

If Israel wants to end this conflict by invoking substantive measures that prevent a Gazan Hamas remnant from rearming and again attacking, the IDF must do something about Philadelphi. This requires close coordination with Egypt, which is ostensibly willing as long as neither combat nor Gazans overflow onto its territory.

How to ‘close’ Philadelphi to smuggling without invading Rafah and causing yet more death and starvation is the key strategic question here. Does the IDF have an answer?

Q. And the hostages? Why do the coalition’s messianic right-wingers object to prioritizing their release?

A. The Kahanist far right’s approach--I won’t honor it by calling it reasoning-- appears to focus on its messianic motives. The messianists have made ample statements to the effect that Hamas’s October 7, 2023 massacre of Israelis offers a God-given opportunity for Israel to take back, and resettle, the Gaza Strip from which Israel’s settlers were evacuated in 2005. For that to happen, from the far right’s standpoint the war must go on and Gaza’s Palestinian population must be either eliminated, expelled or radically reduced in number.

(That Gaza Strip land is not, strictly speaking, part of biblical Israel, hence ostensibly not destined for quasi-messianic settlement, but rather is historically Philistine territory, is a separate and intriguing theological issue worth discussing at another time and place.)

Hence the Israeli hostages still held by Hamas--virtually all of them secular, left-leaning Zionists from the Gaza periphery kibbutzim--are not as important to the messianic right as is the land. They are also not as important to the messianists as victory in the war.

On October 7, Israel failed spectacularly in its most basic Zionist mission of protecting the Jewish people from a pogrom in their homeland. Rescuing the remaining kidnapped Israelis is clearly not as important to coalition extremists as proceeding with a war that is costing the lives of tens of thousands of Gazans and destroying Israel’s global economic, political and strategic standing.

As messianic Minister of Settlement and National Missions Orit Strook told IDF Radio last week, "Hundreds of thousands went to fight and a government that throws it all away just to recover 22 or 33 hostages has no right to exist.” This is the same Strook who earlier compared Israel’s armed forces to Russia’s mercenary Wagner Force, and who argued against compelling a doctor to provide treatment that contradicts his/her religious beliefs.

The opposition expressed by the messianic, Kahanist right to prioritizing hostage release is ultimately a blot on the Zionist narrative and on Israel’s most basic values. Yet the Strooks and the Ben Gvirs (Meir Kahana’s disciple Itamar Ben Gvir is minister of national security) are no longer a fringe that can easily be dismissed. They are increasingly attracting followers from Israel’s mainstream. In this war, only 42 percent of IDF soldiers killed are secular Israelis, compared to 63 percent in the early stages of the 1982 First Lebanon War some 40 years ago. The rest are predominantly right-religious.

Q. Bottom line?

A. First, the demographic-political trend in Israel is unmistakable. It is affecting the outcome--or lack thereof--of this war.

Second, make no mistake: Hamas started this war and it is responsible for the hostages, not Israel’s messianists.

Third, from the standpoint of all Israelis, this war against Iran-led militant Islamist enemies bent on Israel’s elimination must end in a manner that strengthens Israeli deterrence. Sadly, as matters stand that is not about to happen.

Fourth, the Gaza War, and beyond it the war against the Iran-led Resistance Axis, has become a major international event with ramifications everywhere.

And finally, both Netanyahu and Hamas’s Sinwar are bent on political and ideological survival. Israelis and Gazans will continue to pay the price.