According to the Israeli military’s Urban Warfare Training Centre, its instructors “seek to minimise any harm to civilians that may stray into the theatre of combat”. That sort of conduct is to be expected of any armed forces seeking to comply with international humanitarian law. But the growing number of dead Palestinian civilians in Gaza seriously undermines Israel's claims of compliance.
Monday’s Israeli military attack on the southern Gazan city of Rafah helped lead to the release of two hostages. Although their families will be relieved that their loved ones were rescued, there are thousands of other families in mourning in Palestine and Israel. The fact that it took place under the cover of Israeli bombardment that killed dozens of people calls into question any suggestion that some kind of surgical counter-terrorism operation is under way.
According to the UN, Rafah – which was originally home to 250,000 people – is where half of Gaza’s population of more than two million people is now crammed. This “unprecedented population density” makes it “nearly impossible to protect civilians in the event of ground attacks”, the UN humanitarian affairs office said on Friday. Civilians’ vulnerability to air strikes was made painfully clear in Sunday’s incident.
And it is not just the direct effect of bombs and bullets that take the lives of non-combatants. According to the Centre for Civilians in Conflict, an NGO, the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effect “often cause irreparable damage to essential services [water, electricity, sanitation, and hospitals], with enduring impacts on civilians’ health, safety and well-being”. Even if an invasion and direct occupation of Rafah were to be called off, the Israeli military’s bombardment of Gaza has already made life intolerable for nearly two million people.
So far, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is resisting pressure from allies to rethink a ground invasion of this overcrowded, impoverished refuge. In an interview with American broadcaster ABC, Mr Netanyahu said a plan was being worked out to establish safe passage for Palestinian civilians. Given that a World Bank report last month found that 45 per cent of residential buildings in Gaza are ruined beyond repair, this begs the question: safe passage to where?
The bitter truth here is that negotiations have secured the release of many more Israeli hostages than military operations. Worryingly, Mr Netanyahu’s focus on “absolute victory” reveals how some key elements of the country’s leadership are captivated by a mirage that ultimately puts the hostages in more danger, deepens Palestinians’ resolve to resist and increases the likelihood of the wider regional conflict sparked by Gaza continuing.
Meanwhile, the fate of Rafah hangs in the balance. While Israeli commanders may think that carrying out operations on a smaller scale than a full-blown invasion is a useful sleight-of-hand to deflect stronger international criticism, the bombardment of this city and its desperate people has shown how dangerous even limited operations are to non-combatants.
However, it is also true that Hamas has not shown itself to have a high regard for civilian life. The militants’ attacks on October 7 were indiscriminate, and their kidnapping of hundreds of Israelis, including children, cannot be excused. By continuing to operate amid Gaza’s civilian population, they knowingly triggered a response from an Israeli security establishment for whom the welfare of Palestinian civilians is a non-issue.
There is time to avoid the inevitable disaster of a full-scale attack on Rafah. Meetings are taking place this week between US President Joe Biden and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been in Qatar for talks. Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN's beleaguered Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA, has been meeting EU development ministers in Brussels, following a regional visit. Those in Israel’s leadership who are taking the country deeper into a military, political and diplomatic cul-de-sac would be well served by heeding the words coming from those allies and regional neighbours who are meeting today. Rafah cannot sustain more bloodshed or attacks.