Rafah residents brace for Israeli invasion despite US opposition

Plans to invade the southern city are real, says former Israeli aide

A girl stands between barbed wire at a camp housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. AFP
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Around 1.5 million Gazans are living in fear under the looming prospect of an Israeli ground invasion into Rafah, despite the US remaining opposed to its ally launching the operation.

Dr Majed Jaber, 25, is a resident of Rafah, where he has been volunteering at the Al Helal Al Emirati Maternity Hospital.

Working primarily in the neonatal intensive care unit with newborns, Dr Jaber has witnessed many deaths due to heavy trauma sustained by pregnant women, and the lack of equipment and nutrition for their babies.

“An invasion of Rafah would be a death sentence for every baby here,” he told The National. “Every one of them requires meticulous care and most of them are attached to ventilators, which are artificial lungs for babies.

“They need oxygen for their brains, and these machines have to be adjusted multiple times a day to make sure the lungs are functioning and that the babies survive and grow.”

Although he worries about his elderly parents and wants to raise enough money to evacuate them from Gaza into Egypt and beyond, Dr Jaber says he will not leave the Gaza Strip while he can still provide much-needed services.

“During the 2014 war that lasted for more than 50 days I lost a lot of family members and even got injured myself. I was happy that I survived but I was young back then and just wanted to get out of Gaza,” he said.

“I didn't want to live through that misery once again. But I'm a capable doctor now, able to provide for my people and reduce their pain and suffering.”

'The threat is real'

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to invade Rafah, despite opposition from international allies, including the US.

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed Washington's opposition to the Rafah invasion in a meeting with Mr Netanyahu on Wednesday, the US State Department said.

But Mr Netanyahu reportedly told Mr Blinken that he would not accept any ceasefire deal that would end the war without destroying Hamas, which Israel says has a presence in Rafah.

"There were and are differences of opinion within us regarding actions in far and near arenas. But at the end of the discussion I made a decision and the decision was made. We acted there and we will act here as well. We will do what is necessary to win and overcome our enemy – including in Rafah," Mr Netanyahu was quoted in Israeli media as saying on Wednesday.

Far-right cabinet ministers have also pushed Mr Netanyahu to launch the Rafah invasion, although less hardline members of the cabinet want him to prioritise the hostage deal instead.

On Tuesday the White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US remained opposed to the invasion.

"Our position on Rafah is absolutely the same. We don't want to see a major ground operation in Rafah. Certainly, we don't want to see operations that haven't factored in the safety and security of those 1.5 million folks trying to seek refuge down there," he said.

Gershon Baskin, a former hostage negotiator and ex-adviser to Israeli and Palestinian officials on the Middle East Peace Process, told The National that the Israeli military is preparing for the invasion.

“The plans to invade Rafah are real – the threat is real,” he told The National. “The military is preparing for it. They have drafted reservists to be ready to go and invade Rafah.”

But Israel is also under “enormous” international pressure from the US and UK and neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Jordan to not invade, he said.

Despite Mr Netanyahu's insistence that an operation in Rafah will go ahead, Mr Baskin believes it will depend on the outcome of negotiations with Hamas.

Hamas is expected to give a response on the Israeli proposal on Thursday through a press conference or a statement.

“Initial responses were unofficial, in that the proposal is good but needs amendments,” Mr Baskin said.

“Hamas hasn't specified what the amendments are – but they want assurances with regards to the freedom of movement of the displaced people of Gaza to move from the south to the north – and a commitment that Israel will end the war.”

Mr Baskin is the Middle East director of UK-based NGO International Communities and is in touch with the warring sides.

The north of Gaza has been ravaged by war – and millions have had their homes destroyed.

“People are going back to demolished homes and towns but nonetheless, people want to go back to the place where they're from. Even if they're going to be living in tents for the next years, they want to do it in the place where they're originally from in Gaza since 1948.”

Mr Baskin said that Israel had initially opposed that but agreed to it eventually “under Egyptian pressure”.

Updated: May 02, 2024, 4:32 PM