Fears of mass expulsion as Netanyahu orders plan for Rafah assault

Palestinians at an encampment for displaced people in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 8 February.

Bashar Taleb APA images

United Nations officials and international humanitarian agencies are urgently pleading with Israel to forgo an invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, which Palestinian human rights groups have repeatedly warned would result in a mass expulsion to Egypt.

The majority of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians are currently trapped in Rafah and have “nowhere left to flee,” according to Save the Children.

Many of the Palestinians now sheltering in Rafah after being displaced from other areas of Gaza are “penned up against the border fence with Egypt and living in makeshift tents,” as Reuters states.

Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said that if the Israeli military replicates in Rafah what it has done in Gaza City and Khan Younis, “it would be a bloodbath and it would be a stain on the conscience … of Israel’s allies.”

“It’s the largest refugee camp on earth and you cannot have a war in a refugee camp,” Egeland told the BBC.

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military to draw up a “combined” plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah and to destroy four Hamas battalions in the area.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said on Wednesday that any “military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost … And that’s especially true in the case of Rafah.”

During a State Department press briefing on Thursday, spokesperson Vedant Patel said that “we have yet to see any evidence of serious planning” for an operation in Rafah.

Patel added that to “conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought … would be a disaster.”

“Only words of caution”

Washington’s skepticism will be of little comfort to Palestinians braced for what might be the worst violence yet in a military campaign that the International Court of Justice has deemed to be a plausible genocide.

As Reuters points out, the US is offering “only words of caution” and “there was nothing to suggest the rhetoric from Washington would be backed by action.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell similarly failed to back his statement of alarm over Rafah with meaningful action to stop the “catastrophic consequences” that he warned of.

And Dennis Francis, the president of the UN General Assembly, pleaded “on behalf of the multitudes of innocent civilians with nowhere safe to go.”

But Francis did not recommend any action by the world body that might compel the war cabinet overseen by Netanyahu – widely believed to be prolonging the military campaign in Gaza to salvage his political career as he faces corruption charges in court – to think twice.

Netanyahu’s repeated promise of “absolute victory” over Hamas is belied by an assessment by US intelligence officials, who told members of Congress this week that “Israel had degraded Hamas’ fighting capabilities but was not close to eliminating the group,” The New York Times reported.

“Netanyahu said last month that Israel had destroyed two-thirds of Hamas’ fighting regiments,” the Times added. “American officials say privately that their estimates are lower, and perhaps only a third of Hamas fighters have been killed.”

Meanwhile, Hamas has the “upper hand” in negotiations for a prisoner swap and ceasefire, according to Israeli negotiator Gershon Baskin. After four months, that Israel still has to negotiate with an organization it vowed to destroy is itself an admission of defeat.

Plan to deport Palestinians

Israel hasn’t vanquished Hamas or secured the release of Israelis and foreign nationals captured and held in Gaza since 7 October through military force.

But it appears well on its way to realizing what may be the true strategic goal of the campaign in Gaza – a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the enclave.

Itay Epshtain, a humanitarian law expert, said that Netanyahu’s statement on Friday “confirms operational plans to transfer – and possibly deport – 1.3 million Palestinians.”

Epshtain added that Meir Ben-Shabbat, a former national security adviser and close confidant of Netanyahu, authored a directive endorsed by Israel’s intelligence ministry to deport Palestinians from Gaza en masse into Egypt.

According to Epshtain, that directive outlines four stages: evacuating Palestinian civilians from northern Gaza; ground operations in the north and then the south; maintaining evacuation routes from Rafah to Egypt; and erecting encampments in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and the eventual resettlement of Palestinians in that country.

Epshtain said that “stage 3 is operationalized at present, and may very well lead to stage 4.”

Two-thirds of Gaza’s population are already refugees who were forcibly expelled from their homeland around the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948, which Palestinians call the Nakba or “catastrophe.”

Israel prevents Palestinian refugees from exercising their right to return to lands it now occupies because doing so “would alter the demographic character of Israel to the point of eliminating it as a Jewish state,” as the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia stated in a 2017 report.

Israel intensifies air raids on Rafah

Fearing another mass exodus like that of the Nakba, Egypt has bolstered its military presence along its already barricaded border with Gaza.

Three Palestinian human rights groups said on Thursday that Israel had intensified air raids in Rafah over the past few days, launching dozens of strikes that killed 59 Palestinians, “including 21 children, 11 women and a journalist.”

The rights groups – Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – added that “others were missing and dozens were injured, some of whom had their limbs amputated.”

Meanwhile, Israel is continuing to forcibly transfer remaining Palestinians in Gaza City further south to Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, the rights groups said. People in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, continue to be ordered to move to al-Mawasi on the coast and even further south to Rafah.

“Another devastating turn”

Catherine Russell, the head of the UN children’s fund UNICEF, said on Thursday that more than 600,000 children and their families “have been displaced – many of them more than once” to Rafah.

Russell was a longtime adviser to US President Joe Biden and his wife Jill. Her husband was President Barack Obama’s national security advisor and her brother-in-law is Biden’s chief advisor.

Biden is widely viewed as complicit and even a full partner to Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza.

Russell said that an escalation of fighting in Rafah “will mark another devastating turn in a war that has reportedly killed over 27,000 people – most of them women and children.”

Cindy McCain, the head of the UN World Food Program, has not made any statement about the threatened expansion of Israel’s ground operation to Rafah. Like Russell, McCain has a close connection to Biden, and broke Republican party ranks by endorsing him during the 2020 election.

Biden nominated McCain for the UN post, which is formally appointed by the secretary-general.

McCain has faced a revolt within the World Food Program over her handling of the crisis in Gaza.

The UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, and the Norwegian Refugee Council both say that a large offensive in Rafah would bring aid operations to a halt.

UNRWA is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in Gaza. But its future is in jeopardy after the US and other major donor states froze contributions in response to unverified allegations made by Israel that a handful of the agency’s staff were involved in Hamas’ 7 October attack.

Any suspension of the very limited aid that is currently getting into Gaza, which has been under total Israeli siege since 9 October, would be a catastrophe unto itself.

Nearly every one in 10 children in Gaza are acutely malnourished, according to initial UN data, and humanitarian groups warn that famine is increasingly likely with each passing day.




This I didn't know- the current heads of UNICEF and the UN World Food Program are confederates of Biden (which in practical terms means Netanyahu as well). Appointment of such figures to these posts says a great deal about institutional capture by the forces of racism and empire. The whole world may be sickened and outraged at the slaughter in Gaza, but the means of stopping it are in the hands of the perpetrators.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.