Making Sense of Israel's Rafah Onslaught

Against the backdrop of international condemnation and warnings, the Israeli war cabinet authorised the ‘Rafah offensive’ on 6 May 2024 under ‘Operation Swords of Iron.’ The central objective of this operation is the ‘total annihilation of Hamas’ in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. As the Israeli onslaught in Rafah unfolded, the Biden administration signed its serious concerns and warned Israel as it stalled a single shipment of armament to the country as a form of a token protest.

Notwithstanding the international concern over the humanitarian crisis that is likely to result in the maiming and uprooting of the Palestinians from the last bastion of apparently secure refuge in the Gaza Strip, it puzzles many why Israel decided to brutalise this last refuge for Palestinians escaping from the scourge of Israeli genocidal warfare in the Gaza Strip since 7 October 2023.

It is evident from the conduct of the Israeli genocidal warfare in the Gaza Strip that little remains of the remnants of the Hamas organisational structure could seriously mount a kinetic challenge to the Israeli authority in the occupied zone. The balance of power dramatically favours Israel, to the point that Hamas even agreed to ‘de-militarise’ and enter into an armistice with the Israeli government for a period of five or more years, contingent upon the establishment of an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. This is a major revision in Hamas’s thinking and position, as the group was adamant over the years about the ultimate destruction of the Israeli state.

With Rafah being ‘conquered’ as the ‘Israeli space’ it fulfills a long-held belief of the Israeli Lebensraum that the Gaza Strip is now under the living space of the Zionists after a decades-long violent struggle and provides Netanyahu with a platform to bolster his faltering ‘Mr. Security’ image.

These developments favouring the Israeli state, merit the question of why the Israeli government gets along with the ‘Rafah offensive.’ Two interrelated interests stemming from the political and structural realities of the Israeli power elite and the body of politics appear to have an answer to this puzzle.

It is no secret that before 7 October 2023, Benjamin Netanyahu faced the most serious challenges to his political rule ever since entering politics. Alongside his far-right coalition government, he attempted to revise the structure of the Israeli judiciary and reshape the balance of power in the state apparatus. However, the assault of Hamas in Israel proper gave Netanyahu an essential lifeline to his politics and political survival, and he made the most of this opportunity.

Besides overseeing ferocious warfare against Hamas and Palestinians, he established a war cabinet born out of the security cabinet in the far-right coalition government. This latter act endowed him with a broad legitimacy, albeit ephemeral, with the likes of Gadi Eisenkot and Benny Gantz (opposition politicians with centrist and liberal leanings) being part of the war cabinet. The induction of political opposition allowed Israel to make critical decisions regarding its military strategy in the Gaza Strip through national consensus. The trauma of an existential threat posed by Hamas and the broad political legitimacy endowed by the inclusion of opposition in the war cabinet ensured the political survival of Netanyahu. It distracted public attention from his authoritarian personalist politics in the early days of Israel’s war in occupied Gaza.

But as the cruel realities of warfare rear its ugly head within Israel proper, the public sentiments began to shift against Netanyahu. The angst in the public stems from the fact that Netanyahu-led decision-making on the conduct of war is not serious about bringing some 200 Israeli hostages held by Hamas in the aftermath of October 7 and pressuring him to resign as his decades-long carefully curated perception of ‘Mr. Security’ falters. The public protested against the clear apathy of the Israeli government to secure hostage releases by entering negotiations with Hamas and seeking a long cessation of hostilities despite the latter, along with Egypt and Qatar, presenting Israel with numerous opportunities for both.

Even before the Rafah onslaught, the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip due to Israeli genocidal warfare was bringing forth the charges of war crimes, campus protests over institutional divestment, the United Nations (UN) vote on the Palestinian membership bid, recognition of Palestine by national governments, and a potential International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against Netanyahu. Despite these ceasefire opportunities and compounding challenges, the continuation of war reflects a clear political thinking in Netanyahu’s mind: as long as war continues, his hold on power remains ironclad. Rafah’s onslaught distracts the national public and international community with another offensive, making Netanyahu indispensable as the premier Israeli leader, engaging a ‘sworn enemy’ with ‘tough policies,’ and allowing him to escape accountability and elections.

Also, in nexus with Netanyahu’s realpolitik of political survival, the structural reality of the Israeli body politic plays a crucial role in the invasion of Rafah. The peculiar thing about Israel’s war cabinet is that despite the government and opposition’s distinct ideological leanings and forging a consensus over the invasion, the figures in the cabinet possess a striking coherence of perspective on the notions of ‘space’ and ‘control’ in Gaza.

For instance, Yoav Gallant, one of the members of the Israeli war cabinet, proposed a plan, the primary objective of which was to preserve Israeli security control over Gazan territory long after the war. Benny Gantz, another member, has a dark legacy of violent settler colonialism. Gadi Eizenkot, an observer on the war cabinet, was the head of the Israeli forces when it invaded Lebanon, where the Dahiya doctrine was operationalized. These examples are beside the more radical ideas of the members of the far-right coalition government. These dark ideas cumulatively shape Israeli perception of space and control on Gazan territory. Representing the sociology of elite formation in Israel, the doctrine of Lebensraum (living space) lies at the heart of the modern Israeli statehood and contemporary pursuit of geopolitical goals in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

From this expansionist ideology, whose roots lie in the German imperial and Nazi pasts, stems the ideas of depopulation of the native zones through industrial-scale violence and settler colonialism, waging biological warfare through targeting medical facilities leading to the spread of infectious disease, in essence, death by disease; using essential food as a weapon for starvation; controlling and manipulating the political geography of indigenous resources; and murdering indigenous professionals, artists, and institutions effectively undermining an indigenous production of culture. Constituting as the core ideological tenets of Israeli Lebensraum, these elements serve as an underlying rationale for the Rafah onslaught.

In the early days, all Gazans were forced to flee to Rafah as a presumably safe refuge from the Israeli invasion. The Israeli strategy was to ensure that all living spaces, e.g., Gaza, Khan Yunis, and Jabalia, were cleared of population, and any remnants of the people were considered as ‘hostiles’ and to be exterminated with extreme prejudice. The recent revelations about the AI system, ‘Lavender,’ that Israel deployed to choose and target people indiscriminately further underscore this approach. The Israelis use systems like Lavender and Gospel to exterminate people, most of the time who are not even closest to any Hamas operative. This kind of indiscriminate killing campaign forced a great number of Palestinians to leave their homes and try to reach the safe zones in Rafah city, presumably under the impression that Israel would not attack there.

Once Israel advances into Rafah and ‘conquers’ the Palestinian spaces through a ‘total war’ approach by destroying whole neighborhoods of life and concrete, it forces the Palestinians to either go further into Egypt through Rafah crossing or stay and face certain death through Israeli bombardment, ground invasion, and state-sponsored starvation. Being the last bastion of Palestinian refuge, Rafah is the only space that the Israelis have not yet control over. The doctrine of Lebensraum, therefore, is primarily targeted toward depopulating this last refuge from the Palestinian being and belonging.

With major population clusters of Palestinians edging toward forcefully being pushed into neighbouring Egypt and Jordan, and thousands of people being murdered and maimed in Israeli genocidal warfare, Tel Aviv’s stated war aim of ‘total annihilation of Hamas’ and ‘complete security control over Gaza’ appear within reach. The Israeli onslaught on Rafah provides both Netanyahu and the Israeli state to serve interrelated objectives. With Rafah being ‘conquered’ as the ‘Israeli space’ it fulfills a long-held belief of the Israeli Lebensraum that the Gaza Strip is now under the living space of the Zionists after a decades-long violent struggle and provides Netanyahu with a platform to bolster his faltering ‘Mr. Security’ image, potentially leveraging national euphoria for political gain, regardless of its short-term and deleterious implications for Israel’s national security.

Hassan Zaheer

Hassan Zaheer, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Karachi, focuses his research on authoritarian legalism, state power, and Dual-State theory. His specialisations include the sociology of Law, the Sociology of Religion, the Sociology of State, and Political Sociology. He is a non-resident Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) in Islamabad.

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