In a television speech, Benjamin Netanyahu declared, Wednesday February 7, that he had ordered the army to "prepare" a ground offensive on Rafah, the southernmost town of the Gaza Strip, where there are 1, 7 million Palestinians, including many displaced people who fled the north of the enclave.

While the head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken was in Israel to discuss a truce agreement between Israel and Hamas – its realization was even hoped for in the coming days in diplomatic circles – the head of the Israeli government opted for the continuation of the war. 

Ignoring American pressure to accept a truce and the pleas of the families of the 136 hostages still held in Gaza who urge him to stop the fighting, he assured that “victory over Hamas” was “a matter of months”. Benjamin Netanyahu says he refuses to comply with the demands of the Palestinian Islamist movement which would only "lead to another massacre", after that of October 7, perpetrated on Israeli soil. 

Total victory over Hamas will not take years. It will take months.

Victory is within reach.

When people talk about “the day after,” let's be clear about one thing. It's the day after all of Hamas is destroyed. Not half of Hamas, not ¾ of Hamas; all of Hamas.

— Prime Minister of Israel (@IsraeliPM) February 7, 2024

Is the Prime Minister simply raising the stakes to impose his conditions in the negotiations, or is he afraid of being politically weakened if he agrees to sign an agreement with the Palestinian Islamist movement he has promised to eradicate? ?

Questioned on the English-speaking antenna of France 24, Yossi Mekelberg, associate member of the Chatham House think tank, based in London, was surprised by the tone adopted by Benjamin Netanyahu, recalling that the war has lasted for four months and that Hamas continues to fight – and even still fire, albeit occasionally, rockets towards Israeli territory.

"Netanyahu is not only talking about victory against Hamas, he is also saying that he wants to crush this Palestinian movement, he emphasizes. He must define what he means by 'victory', and even more, what he intends to do after such a result which, for the moment, we are not taking the path on the ground.”

The Israeli government, and more particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "is clearly not inclined to accept any compromise or ceasefire agreement at the moment", judges Hugh Lovatt, researcher within the program Middle East and North Africa from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). 

"The problem is that Netanyahu says he will accept nothing less than the total eradication of Hamas, he recalls. From the first days of the war, his government defined, at least publicly, a series of "objectives that it cannot achieve militarily. This is in complete contradiction with what Israeli political and military leaders say, sometimes in public, namely that Israel will not be able to eradicate Hamas. By defining unrealistic goals, Netanyahu has cornered himself. In doing so, he is not allowing Israeli public and political opinion to move in a direction that could begin to allow for concessions."

What plan for the post-war period?

In addition to having set unattainable goals, Hugh Lovatt considers that the Israeli government, paralyzed by "ideological contradictions" between the far-right members of Netanyahu's coalition and those who are more centrist, has not been in able to present a coherent plan for the post-war period in Gaza.

While extremist ministers advocate the return to Gaza of settlers, evacuated by Ariel Sharon's government in 2005, and the "emigration" of Gazans to neighboring Egypt, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant presented in early January a plan excluding any “Israeli civilian presence”…

“This issue blocks indirect talks between Hamas and Israel,” he insists. The Israeli government has clearly indicated that it wants to resume fighting in Gaza once the truce ends, in order to eradicate Hamas, while the Palestinian movement is pushing for a permanent ceasefire to be put in place after this pause. 

“Ultimately, what the Israeli Prime Minister says and promises is the continuation of a perpetual war in Gaza, and he is probably also doing it for his own political survival,” he explains. “This political survival depends in a extent of the continuation of the war. Once it is over, it is quite clear, and I think there is consensus within the Israeli political system on this point, the Prime Minister will be ejected from power in the event of elections.

Hugh Lovatt continues: "Once he is no longer in charge, he will be vulnerable to the legal investigations underway against him [Benjamin Netanyahu faces corruption charges, Editor's note]".

He will also have to account for the security failures that allowed Hamas and its allies to carry out the attacks of October 7 which left at least 1,200 dead in Israel. On October 25, the Israeli Prime Minister admitted that the flaws that led to these attacks would be examined "after the war."

American frustrations

On Thursday, a new round of indirect talks between Hamas and the Israelis opened in Cairo, with the mediation of Egypt and Qatar. 

Hugh Lovatt explains that behind the scenes, the US administration has increased pressure on the Israeli government to not only begin to move towards de-escalation, or at least a new phase of the war in Gaza and a cease-fire. fire. 

“The American administration is trying to develop a plan for what will happen in Gaza after the fighting ends, and that is the central question,” continues Hugh Lovatt. “But there is clearly a lot of tension behind the scenes and frustrations on the side. American, as was quite symbolically illustrated by the separate press conferences of Netanyahu and Blinken", organized on Wednesday in Israel.

South of the Gaza Strip © Sophie RAMIS, Nalini LEPETIT-CHELLA / AFP

Experts estimate that a ground offensive against Rafah would permanently remove any prospect of a truce, particularly due to the repercussions and human toll that such an operation could cause – the toll from the war in Gaza already stands at 27,840 dead, according to the Hamas Minister of Health.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that an assault on Rafah would "exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare."

"Of the 2.3 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, who are originally and largely refugees, almost 1.7 million are already displaced, since the Israelis asked them to go to safe places, including in Rafah, recalls Yossi Mekelberg. If a large-scale operation with the objective of eradicating Hamas is carried out in this area, it will therefore be necessary to track it down in the middle of this population. I cannot imagine the number of civilian victims that this could cause and this is one of the great dangers of this initiative."

Yossi Mekelberg does not rule out the hypothesis that this could be a negotiation tactic by Benjamin Netanyahu in his war of nerves with Hamas: to get all parties to rethink the terms and conditions presented so far.

“It may be wishful thinking on my part,” he confides, “but if it is not a tactic, we can probably expect the highest daily toll since the start of the war.”

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