Israeli ground offensive in Rafah ‘aimed at making Gaza uninhabitable’

Israel has announced plans to launch a full-scale offensive on the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza strip, claiming it is the only way to “completely destroy” Hamas. But according to former French military officer and author Guillaume Ancel, a large-scale military operation in the city that is now host to half of Gaza’s population is of no strategic interest. In his analysis, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s only goal is to make the Palestinian enclave “uninhabitable”.

The countdown has begun for Rafah. Israel repeated on Sunday its threats of carrying out a major ground attack against the southern Gaza city before the start of Ramadan: the holy month in Islam, during which Muslims fast, is expected to begin around March 10. The perspective of a ground operation in the city, which was once considered “safe” for civilians, is fuelling international concern about the fate of the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in the city.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” Benny Gantz, a former Israeli defence minister currently serving on Netanyahu’s war cabinet, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday. “Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages and the civilians of Gaza can celebrate the feast of Ramadan,” he added.

Having so far ignored the warnings of his Western allies, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems more determined than ever to continue the war against Hamas, reaffirming on February 9 that he was aiming for “total victory”. On February 17 he said that foreign countries calling on Israel to spare the city were effectively telling the country to “lose the war” against Hamas.

“Benny Gantz’s statements reflect a rift within the war cabinet,” French military expert Guillaume Ancel said in an interview with FRANCE 24. “While the extremists led by Netanyahu want to go all the way, those who are more moderate, like Benny Gantz, want to leave the door open for negotiations, which are currently going very badly.”

Pressure ‘on partners involved in negotiations’

According to a Hamas official quoted by Israeli daily Haaretz, the arrival of the movement’s political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo on Tuesday did not mean there had been any breakthrough in the negotiations.

Organised by Egypt and Qatar, several rounds of talks were held in Cairo earlier this month but failed to reach an agreement on a truce and the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. According to Israel, 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, at least 30 of whom have reportedly died, out of the 257 kidnapped on October 7.

Read moreWho are the remaining Gaza hostages?

Talks have stalled over Hamas’s demands, described as “delusional” by Binyamin Netanyahu. These include a ceasefire, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, an end to the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory and safe shelter for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians.

“More than on Hamas, this is about putting pressure on the partners involved in the negotiations, specially Egypt, Qatar and the US”, says Tewfik Hamel, a researcher in military history at Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, who sees Israel’s ultimatum as a call for the Islamist movement to capitulate.

Fears of ‘carnage’

Should new negotiations fail, the prospect of a military ground offensive in overcrowded Rafah raises the worst fears for the trapped Palestinian refugees. Nearly 30,000 people have so far been killed in the conflict, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

“In an area of 10 square kilometres, there are almost 1.5 million Palestinians, so this will necessarily lead to a massacre of the civilian population,” says Hamel. “Attacking the town of Rafah, where two-thirds of Gaza’s population is now squeezed, would mean committing carnage,” agrees Ancel.

The former soldier points out that the town has already been subjected to daily bombardment designed “to prepare the territory” for a ground attack. On Thursday, fresh Israeli bombardment of the city flattened a mosque and destroyed homes in what residents called one of their worst nights yet, killing at least 97 people and wounding 130 others in the last 24 hours, according to Gaza’s health authorities. Most victims were still under rubble or in areas rescuers could not reach.

“We can’t even begin to imagine what this would mean for all these displaced people. A military offensive is going to create even more chaos,” Jamie MacGoldrick, the UN’s Middle East coordinator, told FRANCE 24.

Reports from humanitarian organisations have been increasingly alarming on the situation in the Gaza Strip, where 2.2 million people could face starvation. According to UN agencies, food and drinking water have become “extremely scarce”, and 90 percent of the enclave’s young children now suffer from infectious diseases.

Watch moreThe desperate search for food and water in Gaza

Netanyahu has said Israel would provide “safe passage” to civilians trying to leave Rafah before the assault, but never mentioned to which destination. In the event of an offensive, Palestinian civilians would have to try to force their way across the closed border with Egypt.

Egypt doesn’t want refugees in Sinai because the authorities don’t know whether Israel would later accept their return to the Gaza Strip, and Egypt doesn’t want to host the refugees out of fears some might end up being Hamas fighters, even if authorities don’t explicitly state it,” explains Bruno Daroux, FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor.

But recently Cairo seemed to be preparing for this scenario. According to reports by the Wall Street Journal and an Egyptian NGO, Cairo is constructing a walled camp in the Sinai Peninsula to receive displaced Palestinian civilians from the Gaza Strip. After satellite images appeared to show extensive construction work along the border, the reports claim the compound could accommodate more than 100,000 people on the Egyptian side, parallel to the border with Gaza.

Ancel sees this flight from Rafah as the real objective of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. “Rafah is the only urban centre that has not been destroyed by the Israeli army. The government therefore wants to complete the destruction of the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure to make it uninhabitable. Netanyahu’s aim is to empty the Gaza Strip of Palestinians under the guise of fighting Hamas,” says the former officer, who believes that “a terrorist organisation cannot be destroyed by a military offensive”.

Destruction rendering ‘return of civilians impossible’

“The current Israeli government rejects the creation of a Palestinian state. From that point of view, the most reasonable option is to drive the Palestinians out of the territory,” says Hamel. “However, the attachment of the Gazans to the territory remains strong, because they know that as soon as there is a displacement of the population, the possibility of a return completely ceases to exist.”

As well as farmlands, almost 40 percent of the buildings in the Gaza Strip had been destroyed by January 17, an Israeli study revealed. According to satellite data analysis obtained by the BBC, the actual figure is higher. That analysis suggests between 144,000 and 175,000 buildings across the whole Gaza Strip have been damaged or destroyed – meaning between 50 and 61 percent of Gaza’s buildings.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk on February 8 accused the Israeli army of committing a “war crime” in its reported destruction of buildings within one kilometre of the barrier between the enclave and Israel in order to create a “buffer zone” along the border inside Gaza itself.

Read moreGaza: More than 40% of buildings destroyed in the ‘buffer zone’ Israel plans to create

Turk said the destruction “appears to be aimed at, or has the effect of, rendering the return of civilians to these areas impossible,” adding Israel’s “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime”, he said in a statement.

This story has been adapted from the original in French.

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Israel strikes across Gaza as U.S. says it will block another cease-fire resolution at UN

Israeli strikes across Gaza killed at least 18 persons overnight and into Sunday, according to medics and witnesses, as the United States said it would veto another draft U.N. ceasefire resolution.

The US, Israel’s top ally, instead hopes to broker a cease-fire agreement and hostage release between Israel and Hamas, and envisions a wider resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed back, calling Hamas’ demands “delusional” and rejecting U.S. and international calls for a pathway to Palestinian statehood.

His Cabinet adopted a declaration on Sunday saying Israel “categorically rejects international edicts on a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians” and opposes any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, which it said would “grant a major prize to terror” after the October 7 attack that triggered the war.

Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive until “total victory” over Hamas and to expand it to Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah, where more than half the enclave’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians has sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.

The head of the World Health Organization, meanwhile, said Nasser Hospital, the main medical centre serving southern Gaza, “is not functional anymore” after Israeli forces raided the facility in the southern city of Khan Younis last week.

An airstrike in Rafah overnight killed six persons, including a woman and three children, and another strike killed five men in Khan Younis, the main target of the offensive over the past two months. Associated Press journalists saw the bodies arrive at a hospital in Rafah.

In Gaza City, which was isolated, largely evacuated and suffered widespread destruction in the initial weeks of the war, an airstrike flattened a family home, killing seven people, including three women, according to Sayed al-Afifi, a relative of the deceased.

The Israeli military rarely comments on individual strikes and blames civilian casualties on Hamas because the militants operate in dense residential areas.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the UN health agency, said a WHO team was not allowed to enter Nasser Hospital on Friday or Saturday “to assess the conditions of the patients and critical medical needs, despite reaching the hospital compound to deliver fuel alongside partners.” In a post on X, he said there are still about 200 patients in the hospital, including 20 who need urgent referrals to other hospitals.

Israel says it has arrested over 100 suspected militants, including 20 who it says participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, without providing evidence. The military says it is looking for the remains of hostages inside the facility and does not target doctors or patients.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 70 medical personnel were among those arrested, as well as patients in hospital beds who were taken away in trucks. Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesperson for the ministry, said soldiers beat detainees and stripped them of their clothes. There was no immediate comment from the military on those allegations.

The war erupted after Hamas burst through Israel’s defences and attacked communities across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostages. Militants still hold around 130 hostages, a fourth of whom are believed to be dead, after most of the others were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November.

The war has killed at least 28,985 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its records. The toll includes 127 bodies brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, it said Sunday. Around 80% of Gaza’s population have been driven from their homes and a quarter face starvation.

In the occupied West Bank, a shootout erupted when Israeli forces went to arrest an armed suspect in the town of Tulkarem. The military said the suspect was killed and a member of Israel’s paramilitary Border Police was severely wounded. It described the target of the raid as a senior militant involved in recent attacks. The Palestinian Health Ministry said two Palestinians were killed.

Algeria, the Arab representative on the U.N. Security Council, has circulated a draft resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire and unhindered humanitarian access, as well as rejecting the forced displacement of Palestinian civilians.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement late Saturday that the draft resolution runs counter to Washington’s efforts to end the fighting and “will not be adopted.”

“It is critical that other parties give this process the best odds of succeeding, rather than push measures that put it — and the opportunity for an enduring resolution of hostilities — in jeopardy,” she said.

The U.S. has used its veto on similar previous resolutions with wide international support, and President Joe Biden has bypassed Congress to rush arms to Israel while urging it to take greater measures to spare civilians and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The U.S., Qatar and Egypt have spent weeks trying to broker a cease-fire and hostage release, but there’s a wide gap between Israel and Hamas’ demands and Qatar said Saturday that the talks “have not been progressing as expected.”

Hamas has said it will not release all of the remaining hostages without Israel ending the war and withdrawing from Gaza. It is also demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including top militants.

Mr. Netanyahu has publicly rejected both demands and any scenario in which Hamas would be able to rebuild its military and governing capabilities. He said he sent a delegation to cease-fire talks in Cairo last week at Biden’s request but doesn’t see the point in sending them again.

In an interview with Israel’s Kan public broadcaster on Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser said that military pressure and sticking to a strict line in the negotiations could lead Hamas to drop its “absurd demands that nobody could accept.”

Tzachi Hanegbi said the U.S. supports Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas’ capabilities and has not pressured Israel to end the war or withdraw troops from Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu has pushed back against international concern about a planned Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, saying residents will be evacuated to safer areas. Where they will go in largely devastated Gaza is not clear.

The Israeli leader is also opposed to Palestinian statehood, which the U.S. says is a key element in its broader vision for normalization of relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, as well as Arab investment in Gaza’s postwar reconstruction and governance.

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Netanyahu says Rafah offensive will go ahead as fears grow for patients in raided hospital

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that troops would go into the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah regardless of whether a hostage release was agreed. Fears continued to mount for the patients and staff trapped inside the Nasser hospital in Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Younis, which was raided by the Israeli army. 

The deadly bombardment of Gaza continued overnight with another 100 people killed in Israeli strikes, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

At least 120 patients and five medical teams are stuck without water, food and electricity in the Nasser hospital in Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Younis, according to the health ministry.

Israel has for weeks concentrated its military operations in Khan Younis, the hometown of Hamas‘s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the October 7 attack that triggered the war.


Nasser hospital under Israeli control. © Jean-Michel Cornu, Sylvie Husson, Valentina Breschi, AFP

Intense fighting has raged around the Nasser hospital – one of the Palestinian territory’s last major medical facilities that remains even partly operational.

The power was cut and the generators stopped after the raid, leading to the deaths of six patients due to a lack of oxygen, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

“New-born children are at a risk of dying in the next few hours,” the ministry warned Saturday.

Israel’s army said troops entered the hospital on Thursday, acting on what it said was “credible intelligence” that hostages seized in the October 7 attack had been held there and that the bodies of some may still be inside.

Hamas's armed wing has warned that the hostages held in Gaza are 'struggling to stay alive'.
Hamas’s armed wing has warned that the hostages held in Gaza are ‘struggling to stay alive’. © Tobias Schwarz, AFP

It said it has detained 100 people from the hospital suspected of “terrorist activity”, seized weapons and retrieved “medications with the names of Israeli hostages” in the hospital.

But the raid has been criticised by medics and the United Nations. The army has insisted it made every effort to keep the hospital supplied with power, including bringing in an alternative generator.

A witness, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told AFP the Israeli forces had shot “at anyone who moved inside the hospital”.

‘Pattern of attacks’

World Health Organization spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic slammed the operation Friday, saying “more degradation to the hospital means more lives being lost”.

“Patients, health workers, and civilians who are seeking refuge in hospitals deserve safety and not a burial in those places of healing,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders said its medics had been forced to flee and leave patients behind, with one employee unaccounted for and another detained by Israeli forces.

The Gaza war began with Hamas’s October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. © Mohammed Abed, AFP

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using hospitals for military purposes, which the Palestinian Islamist group has denied.

The UN Human Rights Office said the Nasser hospital raid appeared to be “part of a pattern of attacks by Israeli forces striking essential life-saving civilian infrastructure”.

‘Die from hunger’

High-level negotiations to pause the war were held this week in Cairo, but continue to remain “not really very promising”, said the prime minister of Qatar, a key mediator for the negotiations, on Saturday. 

“I believe that we can see a deal happening very soon. Yet the pattern in the last few days is not really very promising,” Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said at the Munich Security Conference.

“We will always remain optimistic, we will always remain pushing,” he added, speaking in English. 

A day after US President Joe Biden called for a “temporary truce” to secure the release of hostages, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday reiterated the group’s demands, including a complete pause in fighting, the release of Hamas prisoners, and withdrawal of Israeli troops.

At the Abu Yussef Al-Najjar hospital in Gaza's southern city of Rafah, AFP saw corpses lined up in body bags while relatives grieved.
At the Abu Yussef Al-Najjar hospital in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, AFP saw corpses lined up in body bags while relatives grieved. © Mohammed Abed, AFP

Qatar-based Haniyeh said Hamas would “not agree to anything less”.

Al-Thani also said on Saturday that a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas “should not be conditioned” by an agreement on hostage release. “This is the dilemma that we’ve been in and unfortunately that’s been misused by a lot of countries, that in order to get a ceasefire, it’s conditional to have the hostage deal. It shouldn’t be conditioned.”

Biden has also urged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu not to launch an offensive in Rafah without a plan to keep civilians safe – but Netanyahu insisted he would push ahead with a “powerful” operation there to defeat Hamas.

During a televised news conference on Saturday, Netanyahu said critics calling for Israel not to mount military action in Rafah were effectively telling the country to “lose the war” against Hamas. The Israeli premier also indicated that troops would go into the southern Gaza Strip city regardless of whether a hostage release was agreed. “Even if we achieve it, we will enter Rafah.” 

Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in Rafah after taking refuge in a makeshift encampment by the Egyptian border, with dwindling supplies.

“We are dying slowly due to the scarcity of resources and the lack of medications and treatments,” said displaced Palestinian Mohammad Yaghi.

In northern Gaza, many are so desperate for food they are grinding up animal feed.

Israel has called for the head of UNRWA to step down after claims a Hamas tunnel had been discovered under its evacuated headquarters.
Israel has called for the head of UNRWA to step down after claims a Hamas tunnel had been discovered under its evacuated headquarters. © AFP

“We need food now,” said Mohammed Nassar, 50, from Jabalia in northern Gaza.

“We’re going to die from hunger, not by bombs or missiles.”

With the UN warning that Gazans are close to famine, the head of its agency for Palestinian refugees accused Israel of waging a campaign to “destroy” it entirely.

Israel has called for UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini to resign following claims a Hamas tunnel was discovered under its Gaza City headquarters.

Read moreAs donors suspend critical funding to UNRWA, allegations against staff remain murky

Lazzarini told Swiss media Tamedia that the tunnel was 20 metres underground, and UNRWA didn’t have the capabilities to search below ground in Gaza. More than 150 UNRWA installations have been hit during the war, he said.

Regional tensions

Hamas’s armed wing has warned hostages in Gaza are also “struggling to stay alive” as conditions deteriorate due to relentless Israeli bombardments.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Egypt was building a walled camp near the border to accommodate Palestinians displaced from Gaza, citing Egyptian officials and security analysts.

Satellite images obtained by AFP show machinery building a wall along the highly secure frontier.

With the conflict now in its fifth month, regional tensions remain high.

Hamas ally Hezbollah and arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily border fire since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed that Israel would pay “with blood” for civilians it has killed in Lebanon.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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The ‘Philadelphi Corridor’: A goal for Netanyahu, a red line for Egypt

A narrow buffer zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, the “Philadelphia Corridor” has come under increasing scrutiny as Israel plans a full-scale military offensive on Rafah, Gaza’s crammed, southernmost city near the border. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to take control of the strategic sliver of land. That has Egypt worried amid fears of a breakdown of the decades-old Egypt-Israel peace accords.

Truce talks in Cairo this week have focused attention on the pressure Egypt is facing during the Israel-Hamas war and a little-known sliver of land rather inaccurately called “the Philadelphi Corridor”, sometimes translated as the Philadelphia Corridor.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to control this narrow buffer zone along the Egypt-Gaza border since the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched its war against Hamas following the October 7 attacks.

With Israel now threatening a full-scale ground offensive in Rafah – despite international warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in a city crammed with around 1.5 million forcibly displaced Gazans – Egypt is warily eyeing its northeastern border with Israel.

A day before the CIA and Mossad chiefs held talks in Cairo this week with regional negotiators desperate for a ceasefire, Netanyahu was rattling Egyptian nerves again.  

In an interview with US TV channel ABC News, Netanyahu said Israel would provide “safe passage for the civilian population to leave” Rafah, which he described as Hamas’s “last stronghold”.

The Israeli prime minister did not say exactly where the desperate, already displaced Gazans could take refuge. Netanyahu did however mention areas north of Rafah that could be used as safe zones for civilians.

The UN though is not convinced of Israel’s plans for Gaza’s civilians. A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on Tuesday that the UN “will not be party to the forced displacement of people” since “there is no place currently safe” in Gaza.

That increased the spotlight on the Philadelphi Corridor, a route that runs along Gaza’s southern frontier with Egypt, from the Mediterranean coast to the Kerem Shalom crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip meet.

The Philadephi Corridor © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

Fearing a massive influx of refugees and its possible consequences, Egypt has deployed around 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers in northeastern Sinai over the past few weeks. This deployment is part of a series of measures aimed at reinforcing security on the border with Gaza, two Egyptian security sources told Reuters.

Through the corridors of power

Named “Philadelphi” after a randomly chosen Israeli military code name for what is also called the “Saladin Axis”, the strategic corridor is a 14 kilometre-long and 100 metre-wide buffer zone. It was set up in accordance with the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

The aim of the Philadelphi Corridor is to prevent armed incursions, control the movement of Palestinians in both directions, and prevent smuggling and arms trafficking between the Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

Marked by barbed wire fences and concrete blocks, the Philadelphi Corridor was under Israeli control until the IDF’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The 2005 Philadelphi Accord between Egypt and Israel authorised Cairo to deploy a contingent of 750 Egyptian border guards along the Egyptian side of the buffer zone. These border guards were the first Egyptian soldiers to patrol the zone since the 1967 war, when the Gaza Strip was conquered by Israel along with the Sinai Peninsula, which was later returned to Egypt under the Camp David Accords.

The 2005 Egypt-Israel agreement very precisely defined the Egyptian military equipment deployment in this buffer zone: eight helicopters, 30 light armored vehicles and four coastal patrol ships.

Their mission was to guard the corridor on the Egyptian side – the only Gaza border outside the direct control of the Israeli army – to combat terrorism and prevent smuggling and infiltrations.

On the other side of the corridor, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces took over from the Israelis. But just two years later, the PA lost control of the corridor when it was pushed out of Gaza following the 2007 conflict between its Fatah and rival Hamas fighters.

In response, Israel imposed a land, air and sea blockade, as well as an embargo on the Palestinian enclave now under Hamas control. These restrictions encouraged the development of a system of smuggling tunnels, passing under the no-man’s-land between Gaza and Egypt, enabling goods and people to cross the border, which was documented by Israel as early as 1983.

Since then, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah terminal, through which people, goods and humanitarian aid transit, has only been opened intermittently. Israel sees this zone as a vital supply area for Hamas.

 

A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet.
A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

In December 2007, Israel’s then foreign minister Tzipi Livni criticised Egypt for doing a “poor” job of stopping arms smuggling through the Philadelphi Corridor.

As far back as 2008-2009 Gaza war, also known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military plans called for the occupation of the Philadelphi Corridor in order to destroy the underground smuggling tunnels. This would have de facto encircled the Gaza Strip.

Following the 2013 military coup which ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo became hostile to Hamas, which it saw as a Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood.

The Egyptian army set about destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels dug under the border with the Gaza Strip. This was in retaliation against Hamas, which Cairo accused of destabilising the Sinai while the Egyptian military waged a counterterrorism operation against a branch of the Islamic State (IS) group. To destroy this underground system, Egypt deliberately flooded the border area in 2015.

The land that ‘must be in our hands’

After the October 7 attacks on Israeli soil, which was unprecedented in scale and human toll, attention in Israel once again turned to the Philadelphi Corridor, which was perceived more than ever as a strategic area for Hamas.

As the year ended – and the Gaza war headed to its third month – Netanyahu unambiguously stated Israel’s strategic intentions at a news conference on December 30.  

“The Philadelphi Corridor – or to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point [of Gaza] – must be in our hands. It must be shut. It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarisation that we seek,” he said.

Netanyahu has frequently repeated this threat, compelling Cairo to take the Israeli leader’s rhetoric very seriously.

The risk of desperate Gazans fleeing into Egypt due to the Israeli assault is of great concern to Egyptian authorities, according to Salah Gomaa, deputy editor of Egyptian state-owned radio station Al-Sharq Al Awsat.

Since the start of the latest Gaza war, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who acts as mediator between Hamas and the Israeli government, has opposed the idea of allowing Gazans fleeing the war and crowded together at the Egyptian border to enter his territory. In a November address, Sisi reiterated his country’s rejection of the forced displacement of Gazans to Egypt, calling it a “red line”.

“Any bombardment or attack at Rafah now will certainly lead the refugees to flee to Sinai,” said Gomaa. “If Egypt allows this to happen, it will mean that it accepts the liquidation of the Palestinian issue while hardline Israeli ministers openly advocate the resettlement of Gaza and the ‘transfer‘ of Gazans to neighbouring Egypt.”

A diplomatic crisis looms

In addition to a likely humanitarian catastrophe, Netanyahu also runs the risk of triggering an open diplomatic crisis with Egypt if he orders an Israeli takeover of the Philadelphi Corridor.

In mid-January, Israel informed Egypt of its intention to carry out a military operation along the Gaza side of the border, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing Israeli and Egyptian sources.

Days later, Diaa Rashwan, head of the Egypt’s official public relations office, the State Information Service (SIS), issued a stern warning that any “occupation” of the Philadelphi Corridor by Israeli forces would be a violation of the 1978 peace treaty between the two neighbouring nations.

“Many Israeli politicians have stated that the very purpose of taking control of the corridor is to enable the Palestinians, under the pressure of bombardment, to migrate towards Sinai, and this is the crux of the problem with the announcement of an imminent assault on Rafah,” explained Gomaa, “This is why the SIS chief issued a firm warning and this is why Egypt considers the reoccupation of this axis to be a red line.”

Egypt, an ally of the US, has used Washington to underscore the importance of its message, according to Gomaa. “Egypt has informed Israel through diplomatic channels and has informed Israel through the United States that this option will never be allowed by Egypt.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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Israeli forces rescue 2 hostages in dramatic Gaza raid that killed at least 67 Palestinians

Israeli forces rescued two hostages early on Monday, storming a heavily guarded apartment in a densely packed town in the Gaza Strip and extracting them under fire and covering airstrikes that local officials said killed at least 67 Palestinians.

The plight of the hostages has profoundly shaken Israelis, and the rescue in Rafah briefly lifted the spirits of a nation still reeling from Hamas’ cross-border raid last year that started the war. Israel has described Rafah — a city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled fighting elsewhere — as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the territory and signaled that its ground offensive may soon target the city.

In Gaza, the operation unleashed another tragedy in a war that has killed 28,340 Palestinians in the territory, displaced over 80% of the population and set off a massive humanitarian crisis.

More than 12,300 Palestinian minors — children and young teens — have been killed in the conflict, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said on Monday. About 8,400 women were also among those killed. That means minors make up about 43% of the dead and women and minors together make up three quarters.

The Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, provided the breakdown at the request of The Associated Press. Israel claims to have killed about 10,000 Hamas fighters.

In Hamas’ cross-border raid on October 7, an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, and militants took 250 people captive, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity after dozens were freed during a cease-fire in November. Hamas also holds the remains of roughly 30 others who were either killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity.

The government has made freeing the hostages a top aim of its war, along with destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities. But as the fighting drags on, now in its fifth month, rifts have emerged in Israel over how to retrieve them.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says persistent military pressure will bring about the captives’ freedom even as families of the hostages and many of their supporters have called on the government to make another deal with Hamas.

Israeli military spokesman Read Adm. Daniel Hagari said special forces broke into a second-floor apartment in Rafah under fire at 1.49 a.m. on Monday, accompanied a minute later by airstrikes on surrounding areas. He said Hamas militants were guarding the captives and that members of the rescue team shielded the hostages with their bodies as the battle erupted.

The Army identified those rescued as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, abducted by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on Oct. 7. They also hold Argentinian citizenship. They are among just three hostages to be rescued; a female soldier was rescued in November.

The rescue, which Hagari said was based on precise intelligence and planned for some time, is a morale booster for Israelis but a small step toward winning the release of the remaining hostages, who are believed to be spread out and hidden in tunnels.

Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the released captives at the hospital where they were airlifted, said the two men were thin and pale, but communicating well and aware of their surroundings.

Begerano said Har told him immediately upon seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov.” The men held long, tearful embraces with their relatives at hospital, according to video released by Netanyahu’s office.

The airstrikes hit jam-packed Rafah in the middle of the night and dozens of explosions could be heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Health Ministry, said at least 67 people, including women and children, were killed in the strikes.

Al-Qidra said rescuers were still searching the rubble. An Associated Press journalist counted at least 50 bodies at the Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah.

Mohamed Zoghroub, a Palestinian living in Rafah, said he saw a black jeep speeding through the town followed by clashes and heavy airstrikes.

“We found ourselves running with our children, from the airstrikes, in every direction,” he said, speaking from an area flattened by the strikes.

Footage circulating on social media from Rafah’s Kuwaiti hospital showed dead or wounded children. The footage could not immediately be verified but was consistent with AP reporting.

A young man could be seen carrying the body of an infant who he said was killed in the attacks. He said the girl, the daughter of his neighbor, was born and killed during the war.

“Let Netanyahu come and see: Is this one of your designated targets?” he said.

Netanyahu has said sending ground troops into Rafah is essential to meeting Israel’s war goals. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden had warned Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation there without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is now crammed into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in sprawling tent camps and overcrowded U.N. shelters.

Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation.

Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said. The official said that after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a halt to fighting.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain,” but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent into Rafah.

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Patients at overwhelmed Gaza hospital are often ‘dying or doomed to die’

Emergency medical personnel who volunteered to work at the European hospital near Khan Younis tell FRANCE 24 of the dire conditions at one of Gaza’s last functioning medical facilities, where overwhelmed staff grapple with an acute shortage of medicine and have to make agonising choices over which critically injured patients to treat. 

Doctor Raphaël Pitti and nurse Imane Maarifi returned to France on February 6 after a gruelling 16-day stint at the overcrowded European hospital in southern Gaza, where thousands of displaced people have joined the injured and sick, seeking shelter and safety.   

Their account offers rare insight into the plight of the Palestinian enclave – a mostly no-go zone for the international media – much of which has been reduced to rubble after four months of devastating bombings and ground fighting.

In the opening stages of the Israel-Hamas war, Khan Younis witnessed an influx of tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting in the enclave’s north. But in recent weeks, the southern city has itself become the focus of fierce clashes, leaving displaced Gazans at the mercy of daily bombardment.  

“The local population are caught in a trap, living in extremely difficult conditions,” said Pitti, an emergency physician who was part of a seven-member team of health workers sent by the NGO PalMed Europe. “People sleep out on the pavement, under makeshift shelters,” he added. “The streets are filthy and the recent rainfall has left stagnant water everywhere.”

According to the medics, some 25,000 people are currently amassed around the hospital near Khan Younis and around 6,000 are crammed inside the facility. More arrive each day, hoping to find shelter or treatment. 

“People lack everything,” said Maarifi, 37, whose last patient, a newborn baby, died of hypothermia in her arms. She recalled trying to resuscitate a patient on the floor in a corridor and seeing children steal gloves from her pocket “to make balloons out of them”.

‘Heartbreaking choices’

Israel launched its offensive after more than 1,100 people were killed in an October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs Gaza. Since then, more than 28,000 people have been killed in the Palestinian enclave, most of them women or children, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel and the United States accuse Hamas of using Gaza’s population as human shields and say Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members are operating out of hospitals in the territory.

The European hospital is one of the last functioning medical facilities in the enclave. In its overcrowded corridors, medical staff and volunteers try as best they can to provide care to the sick and wounded, in daunting conditions.

Read moreMalnourished, sick and scared: Pregnant women in Gaza face ‘unthinkable challenges’

“You have volunteers doing the work of orderlies, nurses doing the work of doctors, and doctors standing in for surgeons,” said Maarifi, lamenting a critical shortage of medicine and equipment.

“There are no sheets, sterile drapes or compresses,” the nurse added, and the dwindling supply of painkillers has to be used sparingly. Her voice choking up, she recalled having to make “heartbreaking choices” between “a child hit by shrapnel” and another “whose leg had been torn off”. 

In addition to the injured, the hospital is overwhelmed by patients suffering from chronic diseases, respiratory problems or illnesses linked to poor living conditions. 

“We can no longer do any dialysis or chemotherapy. Patients who need treatment are either dying or doomed to die,” said Maarifi. She cited the case of a pregnant 24-year-old patient with diabetes who developed complications due to the shortage of insulin, lost her baby and died the next day.

‘Collapse of public health’

“We are heading for a collapse of public health in Gaza,” said Lucile Marbeau, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which works in partnership with the Egyptian Red Crescent (which is in charge of coordinating international aid to Gaza) and its Palestinian counterpart. 

“The war-wounded are amputated on a daily basis, the chronically ill can no longer receive treatment, and living conditions are stoking fears of a resurgence of diseases such as polio, cholera and chickenpox, which we won’t be able to treat,” Marbeau added.

She pointed to the worsening situation in nearby Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where desperate Gazans are gathering as Israel’s offensive pushes further south.

The city of around 270,000 inhabitants has seen its population increase sixfold since the start of the war, and is now home to more than 1.3 million people. Like Khan Younis, it has become a sprawling camp for displaced people crammed into tents and makeshift shelters.


Marbeau spoke of “deplorable hygiene conditions”, noting that water treatment plants have stopped working, depriving the population of toilets. “Access to drinking water is also very difficult and people are not getting enough to eat because the prices of the few foodstuffs available have soared,” she added.

Humanitarian aid ‘a drop in the ocean’

On December 22, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on all sides in the conflict to allow “safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale” into the enclave. But more than a month later, NGOs on the ground say only a trickle of the required aid has reached the people of Gaza.

“It’s a drop in the ocean,” said Marbeau, who also flagged the need for specific equipment to carry out repairs to basic infrastructure, such as plumbing work to improve access to drinking water.

The UN resolution also urged all parties to guarantee the “protection of humanitarian workers” and their “freedom of movement” throughout the enclave – conditions that are far from being met. 

“Access to the north of Gaza is still impossible because of the security conditions there,” said Marbeau, whose team has been unable to visit northern parts of the enclave since the beginning of November. “It is now the most deprived area and we are unable to help vulnerable people there,” she added. 

Expectations of an imminent Israeli ground offensive on Rafah have raised further alarm – particularly given that the border city is also the entry point for critically needed humanitarian aid from Egypt.

“A ground offensive in such a densely populated area would have dramatic consequences for the civilian population,” Marbeau warned. “We must, at all costs, show greater respect for humanitarian law in this conflict if civilians are to be spared.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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The black market price to get out of Gaza: $9,000

Many Palestinians have been desperately trying to leave the Gaza Strip and get to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing since October 7 and Israel’s subsequent military campaign, which has killed more than 25,000 people, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. However, it’s nearly impossible to get an authorisation to leave the enclave, especially if you don’t have another nationality and a foreign government working on your behalf.

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Many Gazans are resorting to paying exorbitant sums to intermediaries with connections to Egyptian authorities, according to testimonies gathered by our team, to try and leave Gaza. But as increasing light is shed on this practice, many fear that even this way of leaving the country will no longer be possible.

“You need to pay $9,000 (roughly €8,200) per person to get your name on a list of people authorised to leave Gaza,” a Gaza resident told our team via the messaging service WhatsApp. In light of this situation, hundreds of people have started online fundraisers in the hopes of raising enough money to pay a black market passage for their family members trapped in a war zone.

The average salary in Gaza is between $500 and $600 (equivalent to €460 to €550). 

So who are these people who can get you out, if you can raise that much money? Mysterious intermediaries who, our witnesses say, have been asking for higher and higher sums since the start of the war.

This well-oiled system is known locally as “al-tansikat al-misriya”, which translates roughly to “Egyptian coordination”.

‘If you talk about it, your name is added to a blacklist’

Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist who has been investigating the situation, says that it amounts to “corruption on a wide scale”.

 

It is the most vulnerable people who have to go through these intermediaries, these dealers in misery. Injured people, those with serious illnesses like cancer— people who are desperate to leave Gaza as soon as possible. 

These intermediaries are located in the places in the south of the Gaza Strip, where people have fled, especially in Khan Younis and Rafah. 

If you pay, then your name will appear on the lists published by the Rafah crossing relatively quickly.  

There are different government bodies involved in this practice— the Egyptian passport and immigration services, the army, the intelligence services and others. 

Everyone knows this is going on. At the same time, there is clearly an omerta going on [Editor’s note: a policy or code of keeping silent about crimes and refusing to cooperate with the police] because, if you talk about it, your name goes on a black list of people forbidden from leaving Gaza. 

Since the start of the war, about 6,000 Palestinians have been able to leave the Gaza Strip [Editor’s note: The FRANCE 24 Observers team has been unable to independently verify these numbers].

 

The Rafah border crossing regularly posts on its website lists of people authorised to leave the enclave. 

Most of them are Palestinians with dual nationality who have been repatriated thanks to the intervention of their respective countries or those with serious injuries who need emergency care. 

For people who only have Palestinian nationality, pretty much the only option to get out is to pay this network of intermediaries. Their names will then be published on the website of the Rafah border crossing. People in Gaza say usually those who have paid bribes are added to lists of Egyptian nationals who will be evacuated. 

This practice isn’t new. It began during the 2007 Gaza siege, according to a man from Gaza who spoke to our team from Europe, where he now lives.

 

I have a friend who left Gaza in 2017 because he had a scholarship to study abroad. Back then, if you wanted to leave the Gaza Strip, you’d have to make a request with the Palestinian ministry of the interior. But it might take a few months before you got a response. And, because he didn’t have a lot of time, he decided to go the black market route. 

Everything goes by word of mouth. My friend went to see an intermediary who had links with the Egyptian intelligence services. He took a photo of his passport and then sent it to his contacts. In a few weeks, his name was on the lists of people authorised to leave published by the Rafah border crossing. 

Back in 2017, this “authorisation” to leave the territory would have cost between $2,000 and 3,000 [Editor’s note: between €1,800 and €2,700].

By 2020, the practice was so widespread that there were even so-called tourist agencies offering this service. They were well established in Gaza and in Cairo, Egypt and offered to “facilitate” the journey for Palestinians who wanted to leave Gaza.        

However, since the start of the war, these agencies have closed.

In parallel, the price of these so-called “coordinations” has increased considerably, reaching $9,000 [roughly €8,000] per person.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted several people who had started online fundraising campaigns to try to raise the money for loved ones to leave Gaza by these illegal routes. However, no one wanted to speak to us. They said they were afraid that if there was media coverage about this practice then it would be suspended and their hopes of evacuating their loved ones would end.

‘There are also intermediaries in Europe’

Our team spoke to a man from Gaza who now lives in France. He is currently trying to get his mother out of Gaza. He said he wasn’t sure how to feel about this practice.

On one hand, you want to denounce this practice. But on the other hand, you are afraid that it might be stopped and, in the end, it’s us who would suffer. 

I personally paid an intermediary in France because, yes, there are intermediaries in Europe, too. You have to pay in cash so that there is no trace. 

I’m concerned because it seems like this type of evacuation of Palestinians has been suspended since the media like the Guardian started reporting on it. 

The Facebook page of the body that runs the border post in Rafah hasn’t published any lists of people who are authorised to leave since January 11. Before, they were posting lists almost daily.   

Our team reached out to the State Information Service, the official press office of the Egyptian government, in an attempt to find out more about these accusations. 

More than 25,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip by Israeli bombs and military operations, most of them women, children and teenagers, according to the Hamas ministry of health. Hamas is the ruling party in Gaza.   



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Discord over two-state solution opens rift between the US and Israel

US President Biden and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu held their first phone call in nearly a month on Friday following the Israeli PM’s rejection of a Washington-backed call for Palestinian sovereignty, with Biden and Netanyahu appearing to be at odds on the issue of a two-state solution to follow the war in Gaza. FRANCE 24 spoke to David Khalfa, co-director of the North Africa and Middle East Observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, to shed more light on the situation. 

US President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the first time since December 23 on Friday, a day after the Israeli PM reiterated his opposition to the idea of Palestinian statehood and a post-war future for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank backed by the US.

Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel “must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan [River]”, saying he had made this clear to Israel’s “American friends”.

“This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of [Palestinian] sovereignty,” Netanyahu said in a televised news conference.

Seeking a more permanent solution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict that forms the backdrop of the current war between Israel and Hamas, the United States has pushed Israel for steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Read moreFrom 1947 to 2023: Retracing the complex, tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict

US authorities have called for a reformed Palestinian Authority, which currently governs semi-autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to govern Gaza after the war. The Gaza Strip is currently ruled by Hamas, which ousted the Fatah government of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections.

Despite the Israeli premier’s open resistance, Biden said Friday after their phone call that Netanyahu might eventually agree to some form of Palestinian statehood, such as one without armed forces.

“The president still believes in the promise and the possibility of a two-state solution” for both Israelis and Palestinians, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a briefing after the call, adding that Biden “made clear his strong conviction that a two-state solution is still the right path ahead. And we’re going to continue to make that case.”

The United States does have some leverage over its main Middle East ally, given that Israel has been the main beneficiary of US foreign aid since World War II, receiving more than $260 billion in military and economic aid. Whether Netanyahu – who said this week that “a prime minister in Israel should be able to say no, even to our best friends” – can be convinced remains to be seen, however.

FRANCE 24: Are we witnessing a turning point in US-Israel relations?

David Khalfa: The US-Israeli bilateral relationship is said to be “special” because it is based on shared values and strategic interests. However, relations between America and Israel have never been idyllic.

It is an ardent relationship between two friends and allies, but one that has known periods of tension. In fact, these tensions go back a long way: we could easily see this in the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter or, more recently, Barack Obama.

Even Donald Trump, described by Netanyahu as “Israel’s best friend”, did not hesitate last October to call Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant a “jerk” or to criticise the Israeli prime minister in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 massacres.

The establishment of a Palestinian state is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, and even by some of the Israeli ruling class. Can Netanyahu continue to resist it?

In the short term, yes. Binyamin Netanyahu will do absolutely anything to stay in power, and his strategy is very clearly to wage war for as long as possible because he knows he is unpopular and facing multiple charges (for corruption, bribery and fraud). He is therefore trying to buy time, hoping to win back public support by assuming the role of warlord.

Netanyahu is a shrewd and calculating politician, but he is weakened by his Faustian alliance with the far right, which opposes any prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Moreover, he is old and on borrowed time, and will sooner or later have to step down. Beyond the national unity discourse fostered by the war and the trauma of October 7, the Israeli population has largely withdrawn its support for him. Polls show his popularity plummeting, even among moderate right-wing voters.

But the Gulf states’ offers to normalise relations with Israel in return for substantial progress towards the establishment of a Palestinian state will outlast Binyamin Netanyahu (Saudi Arabia on Tuesday said it would recognise Israel if a Palestinian state is established). This is even more so as the leaders of the petrostates are young and will probably remain in charge for decades to come.

Finally, it should be noted that the Israeli political configuration will change profoundly after Netanyahu’s departure. The centre, embodied by Benny Gantz (a centre-left MP who has repeatedly challenged Netanyahu for the premiership), is likely to take over with the right and far right serving in the opposition.

By refusing Biden’s proposals, is Netanyahu betting on Trump winning the 2024 election?

Absolutely, but it’s a risky bet. After all, relations between Binyamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, whose temperament is extremely volatile, are now very cool. The former US president feels that Netanyahu betrayed him by recognising Biden’s electoral victory in November 2020.

Next, let’s remember that the $14.5 billion in additional emergency aid promised to Israel by Joe Biden has still not been endorsed by the Senate because the Republicans are opposed to it for purely political reasons, which have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but everything to do with the polarisation of US politics.

Any Democratic proposal is a pretext for systematic Republican obstruction, even if it means putting their immediate political interest ahead of the US strategic alliance with Israel. Conversely, if Trump comes to power, the Democrats are likely to adopt an identical strategy of systematic obstruction.

Could Washington’s $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel be at stake?

There is a pro-Israel tradition that goes beyond the White House to the Pentagon, where most US strategists believe that the alliance with Israel is, first and foremost, in the US interest.

But even if US aid is not called into question, the conditions under which it is granted are likely to become more complicated, as we are witnessing a politicisation of American military support for the Hebrew state, an issue which up until now had avoided any real debate in the United States.

The Republicans are turning towards isolationism and the Democrats towards progressivism: in the medium term, changes in the US political game will lead Israel to make more concessions if it intends to maintain a high level of US diplomatic and military support.

Israelis are more dependent than ever on military aid due to their recent focus on high-tech weapons, while urban fighting in Gaza demands artillery munitions of all kinds – including “low-tech” ones such as tank shells – which are not made in Israel.

This gives the United States leverage over Israel’s conduct of the war. The setting up of humanitarian corridors in Gaza, the increase in humanitarian aid and the scaling back of Israel’s offensive on the Palestinian enclave were all achieved under pressure from the US administration – contrary to what Netanyahu would have his people believe.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Post-war Gaza: ‘The Palestinian Authority is not in a position to govern in Gaza’

The Israeli government recently laid out its plans for the future governance of Gaza once its war with Hamas is over. The proposal released on January 4 made clear that the Islamist movement would no longer control the besieged Palestinian enclave. However, there was also little provision for the return of the Palestinian Authority.

After three months of war between Israel and Hamas, Israel laid out a plan on January 4 for the “day after” in Gaza for the first time since the conflict began.

The proposal, although lacking in details, outlined a sort of roadmap for Gaza’s future governance – a key concern of Israel’s ally, the United States.

It has already met with sharp criticism. For some, it was too superficial. For others, like army spokesperson Daniel Hagari, the proposal revealed the state’s secret plans to its “enemies”.

Presented by Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on the eve of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the proposal hinges on Israel achieving its main military objective – destroying Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

“Hamas will not govern Gaza and Israel will not govern Gaza’s civilians. Gaza residents are Palestinian, therefore Palestinian bodies will be in charge, with the condition that there will be no hostile actions or threats against the State of Israel,” said Gallant in a statement. “The entity controlling the territory will build on the capabilities of the existing administrative mechanism (civil committees) in Gaza – local non-hostile actors,” the Israeli defence minister added.

“It is very important that at long last a very senior political figure in Israel is outlining a political plan for the future. I know he was criticised by the army spokesperson, who said that it is too early to reveal our secret plans. I don’t agree with [Daniel Hagari],” explained David Shimoni, a former member of Israel’s intelligence services and a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS),  a thinktank bringing together 400 former members of the security forces, the army and Israeli intelligence.

“It sounds very good to me that first of all, Israel will not be governing Gaza. Second, that Hamas will not be governing Gaza. That is, of course, the main goal of this war.”

Read moreIsrael’s ‘refuseniks’: ‘I will never justify what Israel is doing in Gaza’

‘The Palestinian Authority stands no chance’

The Israeli government’s plan is simple on paper, but difficult to implement, as many Palestinians support Hamas. According to a poll carried out between November 22 and December 2 by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), 42% of the population of Gaza support Hamas, compared with 38% at the start of the war.

The Islamist movement is especially gaining traction in the occupied West Bank: 44% of residents today say they support the party, compared to 12% in September. The rise in support for Hamas may also be explained by the growing unpopularity of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nearly 90% of respondents wanted Abbas to resign, representing an increase of 10 points compared to three months ago. In the occupied West Bank alone, 92% called for the resignation of Abbas, whose administration is widely seen as corrupt, autocratic and ineffective.

Putting the Palestinian Authority in a position of governance in Gaza therefore seems unrealistic.

“The Palestinian Authority as we know it does not have the power and the influence to enter Gaza. They are weak, they are corrupt, and they do not enjoy the support of most of the Palestinian population,” said Shimoni. “They have been a big disappointment to the Palestinians. They are not delivering, they are not solving the [daily] problems of Palestinians. We heard the Americans speak of a rejuvenated Palestinian Authority [. . .] hopefully that is something that will happen. But for the time being, [with] the way the Palestinian Authority looks now, they have no chance.”

At the end of his visit to the occupied West Bank on January 10, Blinken nevertheless said President Abbas was prepared to move forward. “We talked as well about the importance of reforming the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian governance so that it can effectively take responsibility for Gaza – so that Gaza and the West Bank can be reunited under a Palestinian leadership,” he added.

In 2007, Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza following violent clashes with Fatah, the party founded by Yasser Arafat. Hamas seized power in the enclave after also winning legislative elections a year earlier. Described as a “coup d’état” by Abbas, Hamas’s takeover led to the strengthening of Israel’s blockade on Gaza. No elections have been held in Gaza or the occupied West Bank since.

“The Israeli government […] had multiple chances to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and place them within Gaza”, said Nimrod Dweck, CEO and co-founder of Darkenu, an Israeli grassroots movement. “Even the Shalit deal, [the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas for five years, editor’s note] – instead of doing the deal with Hamas, [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] could have done it with Abbas. He did not do it, and he preferred bringing the money directly to Hamas, instead facilitating it through a different organisation. [He thought] he could manage Hamas with force and money. This is Netanyahu’s responsibility,” said Dweck.

Calls for the return of Israeli settlers

After the shock of the October 7 attacks, Israeli society is looking for security guarantees. Gallant’s plan stipulates that Israel will reserve the right to operate inside the Gaza Strip as often as necessary. In concrete terms, this means the army could intervene the way it currently does in the occupied West Bank. The borders would be controlled, which implies that the two-decade long blockade of the enclave would continue. Nothing would be allowed in or out without being carefully inspected.

The army will soon tell the inhabitants of the towns, farms and kibbutzim surrounding Gaza that there is no danger and that they can return home, said Shimoni. The Israeli army has eliminated many of Hamas’s fighters and destroyed much of their equipment. The chief of staff and the defence minister have said: “When you go home, you will see the IDF all over the place.” They are trying to give the impression that things will be safe, even if we do not eliminate Hezbollah’s capabilities [in the north], he added.

Gallant ruled out the option of resettling Israeli civilians in the Gaza Strip in his plan, to the dismay of the extreme right of the Israeli government. Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has repeatedly called for the return of Israeli settlers to the territory after the war and for a “solution to encourage the emigration” of Gaza’s Palestinian population.

His words echoed those of the far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. “We need to encourage immigration from this region. If there were 100,000 to 200,000 Arabs in the Gaza Strip and not two million, the discussion about the aftermath [of the war] would be completely different,” said Smotrich in late December, in an interview with Israeli army radio. “They want to leave. They have lived in a ghetto for 75 years and are in need.”

Reassuring Arab allies in the region

These comments are “very problematic” for Dweck. Although the Israeli government has ruled out the option of resettling Gaza, certain politicians continue to raise it every day.”

“What will Likud do to tell it’s partners to stop [speaking about repopulating Gaza]?” said Dweck. It also goes beyond rhetoric, he noted. “They organised a convention and hundreds of families have already signed up to repopulate Gaza,” he said.

“The organisers were the same people who organise illegal settlements in the West Bank. […] The problem with them is that they only see their messianic interests and not the interest of Israel,” said Dweck. This will only antagonise our moderate allies in the Middle East, like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with whom we were going to sign agreements, he added.

Saudi Arabia was moving towards normalising relations with Israel when October 7 took place. Yet in an interview with BBC Radio on January 9, Prince Khalid bin Bandar al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, said that talks would resume at the end of the war on condition that an “independent State of Palestine” was created. 

More than thirty years after the Oslo Accords, sealed by the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, this prospect seems more distant than ever. The creation of a Palestinian state appears to be the only solution for achieving lasting peace in the Middle East, said Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, when interviewed by the Financial Times.

For him, any possible agreement must include “a political solution for the whole of Palestine”. Gaza’s future cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the occupied West Bank, where Israeli military operations have increased since the start of the war. In short, the region is a ticking time bomb. “There’s an international consensus on the two-state solution,” said Shtayyeh. “The question is: what are they going to do to preserve the two-state solution at a time when Netanyahu is systematically destroying [it].

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Supreme Court ruling: Checkmate for Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu?

From our special correspondent in Israel – Three months into the war between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli Supreme Court dealt two major blows to Binyamin Netanyahu and his governing coalition this week. The court struck down an essential part of the government’s polarising judicial reform plan and postponed the implementation of a law shielding the PM from mandatory recusals. FRANCE 24 spoke to Dr. Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, about the impact these decisions will have.

Issued on:

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suffered a major setback on Monday as the country’s top court voted narrowly (8 to 7) to overturn a law passed in July that took away judges’ ability to veto government and parliament decisions that they deem “unreasonable”. 

The law was a key component of the government’s contentious plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system that sparked massive protests across the country. 

On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister suffered another legal defeat as justices ruled (6 to 5) to delay the enforcement of a controversial law that would shield Netanyahu from being forced to recuse himself from office if ordered to do so by the attorney general or the Supreme Court. 

The recusal law, which was passed in March, will now only go into effect at the beginning of the next term of the Israeli parliament after the next general elections.  

The Israeli high court’s rulings comes as Netanyahu’s popularity plummets in opinion polls amid mounting criticism of Israel’s offensive on Gaza.  

According to a recent survey, Netanyahu’s party – Likud – would win only half of the seats it currently occupies (16 versus 32) if elections were held now. 

To better understand the impact of the high court’s decisions, FRANCE 24 spoke to Dr. Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.  

Dr. Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, in Kfar Sava, Israel on January 4, 2024. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

France 24: What would have been the consequences of this reform had it not been overturned by the Supreme Court? 

Fuchs: The government’s reform aimed to reduce the power of the judiciary. Israel doesn’t have a formal constitution. But we do have these Basic Laws that serve as a quasi-constitution. If a law goes against the Basic Laws, the Supreme Court can say this is an unconstitutional law, and they can therefore strike it down. This has happened just under 20 times in 30 years since the Supreme Court altered Israel’s system of government in 1995.

In Israel, we don’t have checks and balances as in other country’s systems. For example, we don’t have a real separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. The government rules through a majority coalition in parliament. If you win a simple majority of 61 seats, you can do whatever you want. The only thing we have as a counterbalance is a strong and independent Supreme Court. And what Netanyahu’s government wanted to do was to change that. 

The government also wanted to change how the judges are nominated. So that they could just appoint the judges they wanted.

The attorney general heads the state prosecution system. Netanyahu is currently facing charges of fraud and corruption. If the law had been passed, Netanyahu could just fire his prosecutor and pick another one, which would be more convenient for him.

The high court also postponed the recusal law which aims to protect Netanyahu, stating that it was “clearly personal” in nature”. What does that mean? 

Fuchs: For decades we had a very vague law which said that when the prime minister is incapacitated, then someone will replace him. But it didn’t explain what the grounds for this incapacity might be. Would it be on medical grounds or for other reasons? Nothing was written about this – or the procedures to be followed. 

So Netanyahu’s government decided to change the Incapacitation Law – meaning that only when the prime minister himself says he is incapacitated, or three quarters of the government says he is, would the prime minister then be recused.

The government then needs a two-thirds majority in the Knesset. They introduced measures to ensure that this would never happen. After they voted for it, Netanyahu announced to everyone that his hands were no longer tied. However, the court said the law was “clearly personal in nature” and postponed its enforcement until the next Knesset. So the law won’t be implemented until the next elections. 

Can Netanyahu be impeached? 

Fuchs: If there is a majority of 61 MPs, they can just hold a no confidence vote and form a new government. 

But what can happen – and what always happens in Israel when a government loses political support – is that they just announce new elections. And for that, you need 61 MPs in the Knesset who support a new election. And the whole opposition will agree with that. We’ve seen in polls that a lot of people who voted for the coalition are now totally against it.  I don’t know when the war will end. But if the war ends tomorrow, they will probably announce an election.

Will Netanyahu be held accountable for the October 7 attacks? 

If the government changes, there will be an investigation committee, which is very independent because it is appointed by the Supreme Court, not by the government. This is what usually happens after big failures like what happened in 73, and in 82, when Christian militias, with the support of the Israeli army, massacred up to 2,000 Palestinians in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. 

The committee will ask Netanyahu hard questions and they will deliver a verdict. And they will say that he is to blame. He was negligent. He cannot be re-elected. For example, when they said that former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who also served as defence during the Sabra and Shatila massacres, can no longer be defence minister, he was removed from office.

If Netanyahu is convicted in his various trials, will he be able to stay in power? 

If he’s convicted in a final court decision after the appeal, then according to the Basic Laws, he has to step down. It will take time – at least another year.

Maybe after the war when Netanyahu will see that everything is falling apart, he might get some kind of deal – whereby he doesn’t go to prison and isn’t even convicted of anything serious in exchange for stepping down and not participating in the election. 

Once Netanyahu understands that he can’t be re-elected, then maybe he will go for the deal. And I’m kind of sure that the attorney general will aim for such a deal so he/she doesn’t have to deal with the trial. 

Again, this is an optimistic scenario. I’m not sure that this will happen. A lot of people were sure that that this would happen years ago when he was indicted in 2019 on corruption charges. But he chose to fight and ran in elections again and again. He’s never given up but maybe he will have some good advisors that will say: “This is the time to step down, you’re not popular enough, you won’t get elected. So at least use that bargaining chip to close all the criminal files on you.”

This article has been translated from the original in French

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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