Rafah crossing becomes flashpoint in Israel's war on Hamas: 4 takeaways

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Israel’s push into Rafah and takeover of a key border crossing Tuesday has ignited international debate and condemnation as roughly 1.4 million sheltering civilians in the southern Gaza city were caught in the crosshairs of potential invasion.

Israel late Monday began “targeted strikes” in eastern Rafah before seizing control of the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing, the sole point of entry between Gaza and Egypt and a crucial pass-through for humanitarian assistance.

That came merely hours after some 100,000 Palestinians in eastern Rafah were ordered to “evacuate immediately,” with Israeli bombs soon beginning to rain down on residential areas.

The U.S. ally moved ahead in the assault after it said cease-fire terms that Hamas agreed to on Monday fell “far from” meeting its demands, instead vowing to “exert military pressure on Hamas” in Rafah.

Biden administration officials on Tuesday insisted that they believed Israeli assurances that the movement was a limited operation meant to cut off Hamas’s ability to ship arms across the border into Rafah.

But other international leaders, including the United Nations chief, have said any Rafah assault would be a humanitarian disaster and urged both sides to agree to a cease-fire immediately.

Here are the key takeaways from the situation.

Why Rafah matters to Israel militarily

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has anointed Israel’s military operation into Rafah as a solution to both returning the remaining hostages held in Gaza and finally wiping out Hamas.

“The entrance to Rafah serves two main war goals: the return of our hostages and the elimination of Hamas,” Netanyahu said in a video Tuesday, saying that the Israeli military began operations overnight.

He added that “military pressure on Hamas is a necessary condition for the return of our hostages,” accusing Hamas’s agreement to the cease-fire proposal as “intended to torpedo the entry of our forces into Rafah. It did not happen.”

There are an estimated 133 Israeli hostages still in Gaza, but it’s unknown how many are alive or in Hamas control.

Israel has demanded 40 of the most vulnerable hostages — children, women, the elderly and wounded — to be evacuated as part of the first phase of any cease-fire deal. But Hamas negotiators have indicated they do not have nearly enough people in those categories to hit that figure. 

Also holding up any agreement is how long a cease-fire should last. Hamas wants such a pause to eventually end the war, while Israel looks to only stop its fighting long enough to obtain the hostages before eliminating Hamas from Gaza. 

Rafah is the pressure point in the chaos, with Israeli war Cabinet member Benny Gantz saying that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operations in the city will “continue and expand as necessary.”

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, meanwhile, said Tuesday his country’s push into Gaza will continue until Hamas is destroyed in Rafah and throughout the territory, or until the last hostage returns.

It risks pulling in Egypt

A Rafah invasion also threatens to pull Egypt into the hostilities, a situation that would further strain an already volatile region.

Egypt, along with the United States and Qatar, has worked for weeks on a truce proposal between Israel and Hamas that would secure the release of Israeli hostages. 

The country holds a unique stake in brokering such a deal, as it shares a border with Gaza and hopes to prevent the spill of Palestinian refugees into its land.

But Egypt’s Foreign Ministry condemned Israel on Tuesday for shutting down the Rafah border crossing, calling the move a “dangerous escalation.”

The action threatens the “lives of more than a million Palestinians who depend primarily on this crossing as the main lifeline of the Gaza Strip,” the ministry said, warning Israel to not threaten a potential cease-fire.

Egypt has also previously warned that any flow of Palestinian refugees into its country caused by Israel could negate its decades-old Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

That accord, signed in 1979, has served as a crucial source of stability in the Middle East.  

A compounding humanitarian crisis

Ahead of a full-scale military invasion into Rafah, Israel ordered some 100,000 civilians living in parts of eastern Rafah to immediately evacuate to the coastal town of Al-Mawasi. But aid groups warned it was not an appropriate area to live in, with the U.N. human rights chief calling the order “inhumane.”

“Gazans continue to be hit with bombs, disease, and even famine. And today, they have been told that they must relocate yet again as Israeli military operations into Rafah scale up,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a statement. “This is inhumane.”

His colleague, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, earlier Monday warned that a ground invasion in Rafah would be “intolerable because of its devastating humanitarian consequences and because of its destabilizing impact in the region.”

U.N. and humanitarian organizations in Gaza have warned that the territory has hit full-blown famine due to an already severe lack of access to food and medical supplies. 

On Tuesday, UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, warned that humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza could grow far worse by being halted by Israeli control of the Rafah border crossing.

“Continued interruption of the entry of aid and fuel supplies at the Rafah crossing will halt the critical humanitarian response across the Gaza Strip,” UNRWA said on the social platform X.

The “catastrophic hunger faced by people especially in northern Gaza will get much worse if these supply routes are interrupted,” the agency added.

International pressure mounts

World leaders were quick to condemn Israel for its movement into Rafah and its refusal to rule out a full-scale invasion there.

Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and several United Nations agencies called out Israel’s apparent plans as a dangerous escalation.

Guterres urged Israel and Hamas to “show the political courage and spare no effort to secure an agreement now to stop the bloodshed, to free the hostages, and to help stabilize a region which is still at risk of explosion.”

“Things are moving in the wrong direction,” he added.

In the West, the European Union’s top diplomat, foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, feared a Rafah invasion “is going to cause again a lot of civilian casualties, whatever they say.”

“There are 600,000 children in Gaza. They will be pushed to so-called safety zones, [but] there are no safe zones in Gaza,” Borrell said Tuesday ahead of a meeting of ministers in charge of development cooperation.

The World Health Organization’s regional director, Hanan Balkhy, warned on X that Israel’s military operation put the lives of 1.5 million people “in imminent danger,” calling for the border crossing to be “urgently reopened.”

And Amnesty International official Erika Guevara-Rosas said the Rafah operation was “a cruel and inhumane move that already illustrates the disastrous impact of such an operation on civilians.”

She called on all states to pressure Israel “to immediately halt its ground operations in Rafah and ensure unfettered access for humanitarian aid in line with their obligations to prevent genocide.”

Even the United States has grown frustrated with Israel’s stance in recent months, this past week suggesting that Washington could reassess its support for its ally if it did not do more to protect civilians and aid workers in Gaza.

That threat seemed to be called when reports emerged Tuesday of a delayed ammunition delivery to Israel, the first time the U.S. has withheld lethal assistance to the country since its war against Hamas began in October.

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