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Will the IDF’s ‘tragic mistake’ in Rafah spell the end of the war?


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The past 36 hours have not gone well for Israel.

A Sunday IDF airstrike killed at least 45 civilians in a camp for displaced Gaza residents, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a rare display of humility, acknowledging the attack was a “tragic mistake.” And an Egyptian soldier was killed in a still-unresolved shooting involving Israeli troops along the border with the Gaza Strip — an incident that threatens Israel’s already-strained wartime relationship with Egypt. 

One could argue that such tragic mistakes, to use Netanyahu’s words, should be priced in whenever a modern military conducts operations in a context of urban warfare. But one might also remember that such seemingly random errors have led to the end of many past Israeli operations of this kind. When a single Israeli action has resulted in a civilian death toll that the world cannot tolerate, it’s often become a tipping point in the course of conflict. 

Perhaps the most well-remembered such case was Israel’s 2006 shelling of Qana in Lebanon, which killed more than 100 displaced people. Outrage over the Qana massacre was so extreme that the strike ended up being one of the final actions in Israel’s (quite justifiable) “Grapes of Wrath” operation against Hezbollah terrorists.

But why would the strike in Rafah seem like such a significant moment, given that Israel is estimated to have killed at least 20,000 civilians during its attempt, since mid-October 2023, to dislodge Hamas from control of Gaza? 

The simple truth: It comes at a point at which the world community seems to have definitively reached the limit of whatever polite tolerance it had for Middle East violence.

Consider the context:

  • The International Court of Justice in in the Hague, which has for months been investigating accusations that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, last week ordered Israel to immediately cease its campaign in Rafah. The court has no powers of enforcement, but its rulings can be enforced by the United Nations Security Council, where Israel would be in a hopeless position if not for the U.S. veto as a permanent member.

  • The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague has asked the court’s judges to issue arrest warrants, on charges of war crimes, for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Such an action is unprecedented against the a leader of a democratic country that has a credible local judiciary.

  • U.S. President Joe Biden has already withheld one shipment of munitions Israel intended to use in Rafah, in a display of his growing displeasure with Israel’s approach to the war. Biden urgently needs the war to end for political reasons: It has become a significant wedge issue in his party, especially as a wave of campus protests against the war have seized international attention. If he continues in his previously full-throated support for Israel, he knows he will risk crucial Muslim-American votes in Michigan and possibly other swing states. But to be seen as abandoning Israel would jeopardize his share of the essential Jewish vote in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The U.S. is essential to the war, particularly in its ongoing efforts to supply Israel with weapons; this means that more pressure on Biden will, inevitably, translate into more pressure on Netanyahu.

  • Meanwhile, Israel is rapidly losing the support of its allies in the rest of the world, most dramatically in Europe, where Spain, Ireland and Norway last week took the enormously significant step of recognizing the still-nonexistent Palestinian state.

  • Compounding the problem, the Jewish diaspora is experiencing a rise in antisemitic incidents unlike anything known since the Holocaust.

Even if the war was making meaningful progress toward achieving its aims, this environment would make the pressure to end it nearly impossible to withstand. But it is quite clear that Israel’s twin goals — of eradicating Hamas completely in Gaza, and of returning the more than 120 hostages who remain in Gaza, a number of whom are presumed dead — are impossible to execute.

In such an extraordinarily tense situation, this weekend’s devastation in Rafah could easily be the last straw.

What would it mean for Israel to accept that things have finally gone too far, and the war must come to an end?

Biden has already signaled a quite spectacular way out of the war, which would include a deal for Israeli peace with Saudi Arabia, and perhaps other Arab countries, in the context of a moderate Arab-Western-Israeli alliance to deter Iran. It is clear that such a move would also involve Hezbollah in Lebanon ending its war on Israel, which has caused the displacement of almost 100,000 people from the north of the country.

In return, Israel would have to end its war in Gaza and agree to enter talks geared toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Israel should offer the Hamas leadership exile and free passage in exchange for the return of all the hostages, and seize this deal — the longer the war continues, the less likely it is that such an attractive exit strategy will remain on the table. 

Yes, Netanyahu has so far refused to consider this approach, largely because the far-right parties on which his coalition depends would oppose it, likely bringing down his government. 

But the far-right parties are no longer the only bloc whose interests Netanyahu must consider. Pressure keeps building in Israel for authorities to prioritize a return of the hostages over continuing the war. Within the populace, there is a growing acceptance of the fact that while Israel may have degraded Hamas very badly, it has failed to destroy the organization.

Israel is not built for the two- or three-year war that Netanyahu promises. It has an export-oriented economy and considerable dependence on the world community. Moreover, the scenario of a long-term war runs counter to the country’s longstanding doctrine of pursuing quick military victory leveraged for strategic ends. 

The families of Israel’s hostages are ratcheting up the pressure for a solution; Israel’s security establishment is about to explode with frustration; the polls show most Israelis understand the current strategy has played itself out. With the accelerating international fallout from the IDF’s catastrophic weekend mistakes added to the mix, the pressure from all sides may finally become too much to bear.

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