DISPLACED PALESTINIANS shelter at the border with Egypt, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.(photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)

Israel will gain more support, even from the Biden administration, if it shows it will go to great lengths for the safety of Palestinian civilians.

Israel is in a bind. Most defense and political leaders know that leaving Rafah and its terrorist network uncaptured would be viewed by Israel’s enemies as a victory for Hamas and would increase the likelihood that adversaries would challenge Israel in the future, whether from Tehran, Southern Lebanon, Damascus, Ramallah, or Gaza City. 

Israel’s casualties of the war would have died for little if Hamas were to bounce back and were seen as the victor. Israeli society is traumatized, and it will not begin to recover unless Hamas is defeated and Israel’s hostages return home. 

A pause to return the hostages is likely to turn into a permanent ceasefire, with the Biden administration pressuring Israel to stop fighting and, if necessary, to end its ammunition supply lines to make it happen. The US administration is already genuflecting at the feet of Arab-American voters and progressives to win swing states.

In almost every speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken makes concerning Israel, he says that it is up to Israel to make painful choices. He makes it clear that to him, this means accepting a Palestinian state. To Israel, it means rewarding the mass terrorism of Hamas, proving that violence is rewarded, not punished.

Mr. Blinken is correct in that Israel must make painful choices, but those choices concern how to destroy Hamas’s presence in Gaza while saving as many hostages and losing as few of the lives of its young soldiers as possible.

The most challenging immediate decision concerns the strategy of temporary relocation of the 1.5 million Gazans in Rafah, along the Philadelphi Corridor with Egypt. The Prime Minister’s Office told the IDF to present plans to evacuate civilians from Rafah and “to defeat the Hamas battalions still operating in the city.”

Can you return civilians to central and northern Gaza, knowing that Hamas fighters will blend in with the civilians, reconstituting a terror infrastructure that was largely dismantled above ground but still is not controlled in the terror tunnel system? And how can Israel capture Rafah without endangering the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, needing to move a million civilians to safer quarters? 

Are there other choices? 

How can Israel win US support for its Rafah invasion?

When Israel was rooting Hamas out of northern Gaza, it moved civilians from north to central and southern Gaza, designating 623 map grids for safe and strike zones shared with the civilian population, allowing them to move out of harm’s way. This method will not completely satisfy the Biden administration for its continued support in a Rafah operation. 

DON’T EXPECT statements of support for whatever Israel chooses to do in Rafah such as when White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in December: “That’s something not a lot of modern militaries would do – lay out a map and say: Here’s where you don’t want to be. There’s a certain amount of risk that the Israeli Defense Forces are taking by doing that, and we understand that.” 

Since even expansion of the 9-mile-long (14.5 km.) Muwasi tent city, set up on January 1 along the Mediterranean coast, wouldn’t be able to handle a significant number of the displaced, out-of-the-box thinking will be needed, something innovative Israelis excel in. 

Part of the answer, in coordination with the United States, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, is for Israel to consider creating a temporary tent city to house displaced people on its side of the border. In exchange for this tough choice with many risks,the US and the Saudis, with carrots and sticks, should pressure Egypt to open its border for a similar-sized temporary tent city in the Sinai, with guarantees that they will return to Gaza as soon as there is a civilian government and permanent housing. 

The Israeli case to continue the war on the Philadelphi corridor will gain more support even from the Biden administration if Israel shows the US it is willing to go to great lengths for the safety of Palestinian civilians.

On October 20, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi saw the writing on the wall concerning the Gazan civilian’s displacement, telling Israel to move them to Israel’s Negev desert, not to Egypt. 

“If the Palestinians are transferred to Egypt… Sinai will be a base for operations against Israel, and in this case, Egypt will be labeled as a base for terrorists.”

What he did not say but fears, is Hamas in the Sinai would join ISIS and al-Qaeda, fellow Salafists, to destabilize his authoritarian government. Sisi knows that if Israel rids Gaza of Hamas, trouble is likely to show up in Egypt, as Hamas is hardly distinguishable from the Muslim Brotherhood, the mortal enemy of Egypt as well as of the Gulf states.

ACCORDING TO The Wall Street Journal, “Israel hasn’t commented publicly on what would happen to people in Rafah if its ground forces invaded the city. The planning will address operational challenges as well as the issue of Rafah being densely populated… [with] Israel was making efforts to distinguish between Hamas’s infrastructure in Rafah and the civilian population.” 

Despite the animosity between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Benny Gantz, for the good of their country and its relations with America, they should agree now on how to handle the Palestinian civilians in Rafah. 

Effectively dealing with the humanitarian situation is vital for Israel to definitively win the war, which requires many more months of fighting in urban and underground terrorist strongholds. If Israel is to be victorious, it needs to buy time, and addressing the civilian situation is crucial

An Israeli victory is necessary for its own security and for American national security interests. Long-term Israeli-Arab state rapprochement will only be built on the foundation of a strong Israel with the support of the US as its primary ally. An Israeli victory is the best path toward leading those Arab states to take the strategic risk of distancing themselves from Iran, China, and Russia – a strategic goal of the US.

But that won’t happen unless Israel creatively addresses the humanitarian situation in Rafah, the overcrowded city on the Gazan-Egyptian border along the Philadelphi corridor.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on February 13, 2024

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, senior security editor of The Jerusalem Report, and regularly briefs member of Congress and their foreign policy advisers about the Middle East.

By mepin