Israel is now throttling Hamas in Rafah – but it may also choke itself

The worry is it may once again prove to be a liability rather than an asset

May 09, 2024 15:47

Only a handful of the officers commanding the 162nd Division that captured the Rafah Crossing in the early hours of Tuesday morning had been there before. But they remembered it well. “A lot of bad memories there,” observed one veteran.

The three-kilometre strip near the border with Egypt which the tanks of the 401st Brigade drove into is the first section of the Philadelphi Corridor leading all the way to the Mediterranean. One of the most difficult missions the IDF carried out was during the period after Israel withdrew from Sinai in 1982 – under the Camp David peace deal with Egypt – until 2005 when it completed the Disengagement Plan from Gaza.

For 23 years IDF patrols and outposts along the Philadelphi Corridor were hit by sniper fire, anti-tank missiles and explosive devices above and under the ground. One image seared into the mind of every Israeli at the time is of a row of soldiers crawling on their knees across the sand by the border road. They were searching for any shred of five of their comrades who had been in an armoured personnel carrier, laden with explosives, that was blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The APC Disaster, as it became known, took place on May 12, 2004. To many Israelis it symbolised the futility of remaining in Gaza and boosted support for Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement Plan a year later. The soldiers inside the APC were members of a specialist team commanded by Captain Aviv Haqqani. Just 23 years old when he died, Haqqani was already a decorated officer, celebrated for pioneering new techniques of tunnel warfare under Rafah.

Twenty years later, nearly to the day, the IDF is back there once again uncovering smuggling tunnels under the border. This time around the troops are better prepared. The Merkava tanks and Namer infantry fighting vehicles have “active protection” systems to intercept incoming rockets. The anti-tunnel teams are equipped with robots and advanced explosives designed to ensure the safety of the sappers transporting them on the battlefield. “In military and technological terms, it’s a successful manoeuvre” said the veteran. “We occupied a strategic asset of Hamas, its main pipeline for arms and the only way its people could leave Gaza. The only question is why we’ve only done it now instead of occupying the crossing when the war began and getting bogged down in Gaza for seven months.”

Can Israel leverage this strategic asset? It may be too late. The IDF now controls all the crossings into Gaza, which in the eyes of the world only makes it more responsible for ensuring humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Hamas has agreed to a ceasefire and hostage release agreement which the United States and Egypt are both heavily invested in. Capturing the Rafah Crossing won’t change the terms of the deal in any major way. The Philadelphi Corridor may once again prove to be a liability rather than an asset.

Snarl up

Two angry protests took place on Monday night in Jerusalem. In both of them civilians claiming to be acting on behalf of the Israeli hostages being held captive in Jerusalem tussled with police.

Even the locations were connected. One protest took place in the city centre at Paris Square, down the road from Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence on Gaza Street. The other was on the city’s eastern approach in French Hill, where convoys carrying supplies from Jordan pass on their way to Gaza. Other than that, the two groups of protesters are from opposite political camps and their methods for rescuing the hostages are both very similar and totally contradictory.

The activists trying to block the Jordanian convoy were organised by a group of settlers calling themselves “Order 9” (a take on the emergency IDF Order 8, which summons reservists for unscheduled active duty). For the past six months they’ve been rallying volunteers to obstruct humanitarian supplies to Gaza going through Israel as long as there are still Israeli hostages there. Until this week they’ve mostly concentrated their efforts near the Kerem Shalom crossing, but following the Hamas shelling there over the weekend they shifted locations.

In French Hill they failed to get enough people in time to block the convoy on Monday night but they had time to move their activists to one of Israel’s most notorious traffic choke-points, Route One west of Jerusalem just before the Latrun Junction, where the lorries would have to turn off towards Gaza. Just after midnight they spread across the highway, forcing the convoy to stop. “Hamas trucks,” they shouted as they clambered over the first lorries in the convoy and began throwing their contents down on to the road. For the next three hours, Israel’s motorway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was closed as thousands of drivers seethed in their cars.

When some drivers shouted abuse at them, one retorted that “the leftists have been blocking roads for a year, now it’s our turn”. He had a point. Hours before in central Jerusalem, and simultaneously on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv as well as in Haifa, anti-government protesters were doing the same. And in the name of the hostages as well. But they were demanding that the government accept the ceasefire agreement, which includes allowing more supplies into Gaza. In many cases, these are the same people who spent the first eight months of 2023 rallying in the same places against the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

Now both sides of the Israeli political divide are using the same tactics to demand opposite policies for the same objective. To pile on the irony, it looks like the Netanyahu government is trying to do what both sides are demanding: allowing convoys through while closing the crossings and agreeing in principle to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, while trying to avoid it.

May 09, 2024 15:47

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