Israel Expands Rafah Offensive Amid International Pressure Over Gaza War

Israel’s military battled deeper into Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday, expanding its offensive into the city and driving more people out of it, while Israel faced growing international pressure and isolation over its war against Hamas.

As the fighting raged, the International Court of Justice in The Hague said it would respond on Friday to a South African petition to order an immediate halt to the ground assault in Rafah. The court, an arm of the United Nations, has no means of enforcing its orders, but a demand to rein in the invasion would add to the string of diplomatic and legal setbacks for Israel since the war began.

This week, the chief prosecutor for another world tribunal, the International Criminal Court, requested arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister and defense minister, along with three Hamas leaders, on charges of crimes against humanity, and three European countries announced over vehement Israeli opposition that they would recognize a Palestinian state.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders are looking first and foremost to domestic public opinion, with much of the country still viewing the war with Hamas as an existential conflict. Even while international support for Israel has eroded over its devastating military response in Gaza, Israelis have remained focused on the brutality of the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks.

The Israeli military said Thursday that it was operating in the Brazil and Shaboura areas of Rafah — about halfway between the border with Israel to the southeast and the Mediterranean coast to the northwest — to carry out what it called a limited operation against Hamas battalions in the city.

The offensive into Rafah, which once held more than a million Palestinians forced out of other parts of Gaza, could be a crucial test of Israel’s relations with the United States, its most important ally and one of the most steadfast.

President Biden and his aides have criticized Israel’s heavy-handed conduct of a war they say could have been waged with less death and destruction, and have told Israel not to mount a major invasion of Rafah without safeguarding the civilians there.

Gauging the scale of casualties and ruin is difficult with combat underway, but Israeli officials have couched the military moves in language that mirrored American demands.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesman, said on Thursday that Israeli forces were “refining our operations so that there is minimal harm to the Gazan civilians Hamas is hiding behind.” He added, “We’re not smashing into Rafah, we’re operating carefully and precisely.”

A day earlier, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Israel had not crossed any of the administration’s red lines to that point. “The key concern that we have is major maneuvers into dense urban areas, and that continues to be something that we will look at,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters at the White House. “What we have seen so far has not been that.”

The Israeli military has been moving in studied advances into Rafah since May 6, so far without the kind of heavy bombardment it used against other parts of Gaza, after telling people to evacuate parts of the city. About 815,000 have fled, many of them on foot, the United Nations said this week, most of them bound for the war-ravaged cities of Khan Younis and Deir al Balah farther north, and the coastal village of Al-Mawasi.

Philippe Lazzarini, chief of the main U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, UNRWA, said this week that the areas taking in displaced people were desperately overcrowded and lacked “minimal conditions to provide emergency humanitarian assistance in a safe and dignified manner.”

Gazans, many of whom have fled several times as the front lines have moved, have found repeatedly that the areas Israel directs them to, while perhaps less dangerous than the embattled areas, are far from safe, subject to bombing, privation and disease.

Israel has seized and closed the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, one of the most important portals for food and other supplies to be taken into Gaza and then distributed throughout the enclave. Aid continues to enter by other routes, but relief groups say not enough is reaching people in parts of Gaza.

The rising international outcry against Israel over the war appears to have made little impression on the public in the country, where the Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel, in which the government says about 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage, remains a constant backdrop to the conflict. The Israeli news media continually report the stories of victims, survivors and the families of those held hostage in Gaza.

Swelling Israeli discontent with Mr. Netanyahu’s government has not focused on the 35,000 people who the Gazan health authorities say have been killed, or the destruction wrought by Israeli bombs. Instead, it has to do with the failure to anticipate and prevent the Oct. 7 attack, to bring home the estimated 128 remaining living and dead hostages, to develop and articulate a clear plan for ending the conflict and governing Gaza in the war’s aftermath, and to decisively defeat Hamas.

Analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu hopes to leverage foreign criticism to tamp down frustration at home. Some of his leading political rivals rallied to his defense after the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Karim Khan, announced that he would seek a warrant for the prime minister’s arrest.

“Israel is not only isolated, but feels that it is under some kind of siege,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat.

In the face of the decision by Spain, Norway and Ireland to recognize a Palestinian state on Wednesday, Israeli officials sought to draw the conversation back to Oct. 7. Israel Katz, the foreign minister, said he would reprimand the countries’ ambassadors and show them video of the abduction of five female soldiers during the Hamas attack.

Leaders of Israel’s right-wing coalition government have doubled down with defiance and scorn at criticism from abroad. Mr. Netanyahu called the decision of the three European nations to recognize Palestinian statehood “a prize for terrorism.” The finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said that in response he would withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority, penalizing it for campaigning for the recognition.

Mr. Netanyahu accused the I.C.C. prosecutor, Mr. Khan, of equating Hamas fighters and Israeli troops — though it is only the top leaders on both sides whom Mr. Khan seeks to charge, not rank-and-file combatants. “How dare you compare the monsters of Hamas to the soldiers of the Israeli Army, the world’s most moral military?” Mr. Netanyahu said.

He has also refused to negotiate a two-state solution, the path that the United States and many of Israel’s Western allies have long advocated, saying that would be rewarding terrorism.

Analysts say that Israeli leaders’ intransigence could encourage more countries to turn against it — or, at least, to unilaterally recognize Palestine as a country.

“Consider the message that Israel has sent for the past several months, that the two-state solution is dead, that they don’t want to negotiate a Palestinian state,” said Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg, an expert on international relations at the University of Oxford. “When that alternative is dead, what else do you have but the need for unilateral action?”

Israeli officials contend that an assault on Rafah is essential to defeating the remaining Hamas battalions and dismantling the group’s infrastructure, including tunnels beneath the city and into Egypt. They also say that many of the remaining Israeli hostages are being held in Rafah.

Mr. Netanyahu says that Israel must take control of a buffer strip along Gaza’s border with Egypt to guard against weapons smuggling, and Israeli forces appear to be moving along that corridor, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. The Israeli military said it would not comment on the location of its forces.

Hamas keeps cropping up to battle Israeli troops in parts of Gaza that the military had cleared, and then withdrawn from. Israel has not committed enough troops so that, after routing Hamas from a community, it can securely hold the area and prevent armed militants from returning.

The Israeli military said on Thursday that it was also fighting in an unspecified number of places in central Gaza and in Jabaliya in the north. Israeli forces raided Al-Awda hospital near Jabaliya on Wednesday night and ordered its evacuation, Gazan health authorities said.

Some military analysts have questioned whether Israel’s operation in Rafah can deal a decisive blow to Hamas, saying that many of the group’s fighters may already have left.

The military said its forces had dismantled several tunnels and killed fighters in “close-quarters encounters,” in Rafah. Hamas did not immediately comment on the fighting on Thursday.

Gaza’s Ministry of Health, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, said that more than 100 people had been killed in the territory from Monday to Wednesday, and that hundreds of others had been wounded.

It was not possible to corroborate independently the accounts of either side.

Reporting was contributed by Richard Pérez-Peña, Anushka Patil, Hiba Yazbek and Gaya Gupta.

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