The countdown has begun for Rafah. Israel threatened on Sunday February 18 to carry out a large-scale ground attack before the start of Ramadan, the month of Muslim fasting which begins this year around March 10. Enough to fuel international concern over the fate of 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in this city in the south of the Gaza Strip.

“If by Ramadan, our hostages are not at home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including in the Rafah region,” warned former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Having until now remained impervious to the warnings of his Western allies, the Israeli Prime Minister also seems more determined than ever to continue the war against Hamas. “Anyone who wants to prevent us from carrying out an operation in Rafah is in fact telling us to lose the war. I am not going to give in to that,” he said on Saturday, before reaffirming on Sunday that he was aiming for “total victory” against the movement. Palestinian Islamist.

“Benny Gantz's statements reflect a dissension within the war cabinet,” analyzes military expert Guillaume Ancel on France 24. “If the extremists led by Netanyahu want to go all the way, the more moderates like Benny Gantz want to leave the door open for negotiations which are currently going very badly.”


According to a Hamas official, quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz, the arrival in Cairo on Tuesday February 20 of the leader of the Palestinian movement Ismaïl Haniyeh does not mean any progress in the negotiations. 

Sponsored by Egypt and Qatar, several rounds of discussions have already taken place in Cairo at the beginning of the month but without reaching an agreement on a truce and the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for that of Palestinian prisoners. According to the Jewish state, 130 hostages are still held in Gaza, 30 of whom are believed to have died, out of around 257 people kidnapped on October 7. 

Discussions break down on Hamas' demands described as "delusional" by Benjamin Netanyahu. These include a cease-fire, an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, an end to the Israeli blockade of Palestinian territory and safe shelter for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians displaced by the war.

“More than on Hamas, this is about putting pressure on the partners involved in the negotiations, that is to say Egypt, Qatar and the United States,” said the teacher. researcher and doctor in military history Tewfik Hamel who sees in this ultimatum launched by Israel a call for the capitulation of the Islamist movement. 

The fear of “carnage”

If possible new negotiations fail, the prospect of a military offensive on this overpopulated city raises fears of the worst for Palestinian refugees, while more than 29,000 people have already been killed in Gaza since the start of the war. according to the Hamas Ministry of Health. 

“In an area of ​​10 km2, there are nearly 1.5 million Palestinians, this will necessarily generate a massacre of the civilian population,” points out Tewfik Hamel. “Attacking the city of Rafah, where two thirds of the population of Gaza have crowded, is committing carnage,” adds Guillaume Ancel, who recalls that the city is already subject to daily bombardments intended “to prepare the ground” for a ground attack.

"We can't even understand what this would mean for all these displaced people. A military offensive will create even more chaos," said Jamie MacGoldrick, United Nations coordinator for the Middle East, interviewed on the air of France 24.

Reports from humanitarian organizations are increasingly alarming about the situation in the Gaza Strip, where 2.2 million people are threatened with famine. According to UN agencies, food and drinking water have become “extremely scarce” and 90% of young children there suffer from infectious diseases.


Benjamin Netanyahu assured that the army would allow civilians “to leave combat zones” before the assault, without saying to which destination. In the event of an offensive, Palestinian civilians could be forced to force the closed border with Egypt. "Egypt does not want refugees in the Sinai because the authorities do not know whether Israel would accept their return to the Gaza Strip and it also does not want, even if it is not explicitly stated, that there "Among these refugees are Hamas fighters", explains Bruno Daroux, international columnist for France 24.

Read alsoGaza: why Egypt refuses to let the Palestinians enter

But in recent days, Cairo already seems to be preparing for this eventuality. According to the Wall Street Journal and an Egyptian NGO, the country is building a closed camp in Sinai to accommodate Palestinians from Gaza. Satellite images show the construction of a wall on the Egyptian side, parallel to the border with Gaza.

“Empty Gaza”

Guillaume Ancel sees in the possible flight of civilian refugees from Rafah the real objective pursued by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. "Rafah is the only urban center that was not destroyed by the Israeli army. The government therefore wants to complete the destruction of the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip here to make it uninhabitable. What Netanyahu seeks is to empty the Gaza Strip of Palestinians under the guise of fighting against Hamas", judges the former officer, according to whom "a terrorist organization is not destroyed with a military offensive".

“The current Israeli government rejects the creation of a Palestinian state. From this perspective, the most reasonable option is to expel the Palestinians from this territory,” believes Tewfik Hamel. “However, the attachment of the Gazouis remains strong because they know that as soon as there was a population movement, the option of return was then completely excluded.”

On February 8, UN human rights chief Volker Türk accused the Israeli army of destroying all buildings in the Gaza Strip located within a kilometer of the Israel-Gaza fence. , with the aim of creating a “buffer zone”.

In addition to the destruction of agricultural land, the Israeli army destroyed numerous buildings in the Palestinian enclave. According to an Israeli study, nearly 40% of buildings in the Gaza Strip had been destroyed as of January 17.

Also read “Buffer zone” on the Gaza border: nearly 40% of buildings already destroyed

These destructions reinforce "the displacement of communities who lived in these areas before the escalation of hostilities, and seem to have the objective or effect of making it impossible for civilians to return to these areas", denounced Volker Türk, reminding the authorities that " the forcible transfer of civilians may constitute a war crime.

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