Threat in the north is the real reason the IDF hasn’t gone into Rafah...yet

Israel is reluctant to commit itself to all-out war on two fronts at the same time


Humanitarian aid is dropped over the Gaza Strip as seen from Al-Shifa hospital after the Israeli military withdrew from the complex housing the hospital on April 1, 2024, amid the ongoing battles Israel and the Hamas militant group. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

April 03, 2024 11:56

There was a mixture of satisfaction and frustration for many of the IDF officers and soldiers involved in the operation that ended on Monday against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members holed up in Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital.

On an immediate operational level, they had succeeded in taking the enemy by surprise, killing dozens of terrorists and taking hundreds prisoner. But especially for those who had taken part in the previous encirclement of al-Shifa four months earlier, there was an annoying feeling of déjà vu.

One officer whom I had met going into Gaza at the start of the ground offensive, by now five months ago, grimaced, then shrugged when he saw me outside al-Shifa on Sunday. “You again? We really have to stop meeting like this,” was the best in black humour that he could come up with.

There is a creeping realisation among even the most determined officers that the objective of “destroying Hamas” may never be reached.

The Hamas battalions in northern Gaza were “dismantled” but there were still enough “active cells” for there to be hundreds of fighters back in al-Shifa. Even as the commandos of Flotilla 13 were getting ready to pack up their makeshift headquarters in an outpatient clinic overlooking the devastated al-Shifa compound, skirmishes were still ongoing within.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month vetoed the plan formulated by the IDF and presented in cabinet by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to start allowing a Palestinian security force to take control of parts of the city because it was clear that the force would have ties to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

“Until there’s an alternative, we’ll keep going in and out,” said one security official. “Right now, six months into this war, the government have yet to come up with an alternative.”

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council chief finally had their conversation with their American counterparts this week about the Rafah operation — by video-conference instead of meeting face-to-face in Washington as planned. However, the perception that Israel isn’t attacking Rafah, which according to Netanyahu is the last step necessary to promise “total victory” over Hamas, because of American pressure, is mistaken.

The IDF is concerned that a Rafah operation will need too many troops, at least a full division, while these forces need to be kept in reserve for a possible escalation against Hezbollah in the north. Employing entire divisions on two fronts would mean another major mobilisation of reserves, for months. It means not only near-paralysis to the Israeli economy, but a severe test of the resilience of the reserve units. That is the real reason for the delay in the Rafah operation.

While there has been a gradual return of citizens to Sderot and some of the other communities near the Gaza border, more than 80,000 Israelis who were evacuated from towns and kibbutzim in the north are still waiting in temporary lodgings. The Israeli assessment remains that Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons are not interested in all-out war. But at the same time, Hezbollah has refused to pull back its Radwan forces to the Litani river.

The airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus in which senior Quds Force officers were killed looks like a calculated move to force the Iranians, and Hezbollah, to make a decision. But the IDF is fully aware that this could result in escalation. Meanwhile, no one is going back to Metula and Shlomi, and the IDF isn’t going into Rafah.

April 03, 2024 11:56

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