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Invading Rafah Doesn’t Help Israel

Now that President Biden is pressuring Israel to back away from an all-out invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, some supporters of Israel feel betrayed.

They ask: How can Israel protect itself and ensure its security if it can’t eliminate Hamas leaders hiding in tunnels under Rafah? Why sacrifice thousands of lives, Palestinian and Israeli alike, but stop short of a definitive end to the war that would lay the groundwork for rebuilding Gaza?

They raise legitimate questions, but I think they misunderstand Biden’s motivations as purely humanitarian and intended simply to avert a blood bath in Rafah. Saving lives is an important factor — and for my part, I wish Biden would apply more pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect Palestinian civilians — but even if you put aside humanitarian concerns, many observers also believe that Israel itself would be better off if it showed restraint.

It may be in Netanyahu’s interest to flatten Rafah, because anything that prolongs the war keeps him in office, but it’s not in Israel’s interest.

For starters, the premise of those favoring a Rafah invasion is that the assault might be bloody but would enable the complete destruction of Hamas. But I’ve been arguing since the beginning of this war that Israel is unlikely to eradicate Hamas, any more than the United States eradicated the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Vietcong in Vietnam or violent militias in Iraq.

Gadi Eisenkot, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and a member of the current Israeli war cabinet, also warned earlier this year that talk of the “absolute defeat” of Hamas is a “tall tale.” Likewise, Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that invading Rafah will not eliminate Hamas fighters or end the insurgency — so it looks as if the demolition of Rafah would mostly just kill more Palestinians, risk the lives of Israeli hostages, further inflame Gazans to seek vengeance and advance the growing isolation of Israel in ways that undermine its long-term security.

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