The Biden Administration’s Confused Response to Israel’s Rafah Operation

At the center of US coverage of the Israeli war on Gaza in recent days is the rift between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding Israel’s plans for a ground invasion of Rafah. Sharing a border with Egypt, Rafah is a small city at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip. Cynically declared a “safe zone” by the Israeli military despite its consistently bombing the city and its makeshift tents, Rafah is now home to about 1.3 million residents and internally displaced persons.

While the United States defended Israel’s attacks on other locations, this time around, mixed messaging is emerging out of Washington. President Biden and officials are citing concerns about an unprecedented death toll and possible mass Palestinian displacement, while maintaining a commitment to supporting Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas despite the deadly nature of the Israeli assault on civilians. Sensationalized reports of a Biden-Netanyahu rift are part of a larger story of US officials publicly grappling with the inevitable consequences of participating in Israel’s war on Gaza at the eleventh hour.

The New York Times published an important report last week that did not garner much attention. It noted that, in a closed-door meeting with members of Congress, intelligence officials commented that Israel is nowhere near its goal of destroying Hamas. Further, the report added that US officials “raised doubts about whether the destruction or elimination of Hamas is a realistic objective, given it operates like a guerrilla force, hidden in a network of tunnels that are difficult to penetrate. Weakening the combat strength of the group may be a far more achievable goal.” Former CENTCOM Commander General Frank McKenzie raised similar doubts on February 4, telling Face the Nation that the Israelis “set themselves a goal of removing the political echelon, and the military leadership echelon of Hamas, when they went in. They have not been successful to date at doing either.”

The admission in the NYT is a significant development. At least on the level of intelligence officials, doubts about Israel’s abilities are finally being expressed after months of President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken stubbornly enabling Israel’s actions, while ignoring its war crimes and successive battlefield losses. As similar reports begin to trickle out of Washington expressing doubt about Israel’s military, there have also been Israeli news reports in outlets including the Times of Israel and Haaretz that Hamas’s Qassam Brigades reemerged and regrouped in the northern Gaza Strip. To admit such a development shows the cracks in the surface of the US-Israeli narrative that the Israeli military established control over that area, and therefore, is in control of the battle.

Accounts of Palestinian fighters appearing in northern Gaza do not surprise anyone following Arabic-language or independent journalists covering Gaza, who regularly provide evidence contradicting Israel’s claim to have control over the area. Accordingly, the revelation that intelligence officials reject Netanyahu’s claim that the Israeli military has killed two-thirds of the Qassam Brigades, and place this number closer to one-third, might surprise some. The NYT report adds an important detail: “Operations that kill militants often radicalize others, swelling the ranks of enemy organizations. And U.S. officials say death counts of fighters do not give an indication of whether a government has addressed the core issues driving the war.”

Not only is this information not new to the intelligence establishment, it should not be so to members of Congress. Elected officials empowered Israel to behave with impunity long before the current war on Gaza, refused to heed the warning of advocacy groups and experts on the dangers of the seventeen-year blockade on Gaza, and are likewise ignoring mass constituent demands for a ceasefire. Ignoring such demands has prompted staff to resign and circulate anonymous petitions to express dissent.

Nonetheless, the publication of stories like this one in the New York Times and the intelligence community’s admission they feature exposes the anxieties of US officials, and inadvertently help map out the stakes of what lies ahead. First, this admission appears to be part of a wider crisis-management strategy for US officials, who might have to answer for the genocide of more than 28,000 Palestinians on the international stage, likely fearing legal consequence after South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Despite comments dismissing the case’s legitimacy while it still was featured prominently in the news cycle, the tone shift now is undeniable.

Caught between its unquestioned commitment to Israel, constituent demands, and the possibility of legal consequences for their participation in war crimes, Biden and high-ranking officials are now embracing a confused media strategy consisting of insistence on supporting Israel’s goals, expressing reservations about how Israel is trying to accomplish them in Gaza, and refusing to implement an accountability mechanism for Israel. Biden still backs the Rafah operation, but conditions it by merely asking Israel to avoid civilian casualties. Meanwhile, stories leaked to the press sensationalize personal animosity between the leaders, but ultimately, this does not reflect a shift in US policy.

Second, the Rafah operation could cause the mass displacement of Palestinians into the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. A ground invasion of Rafah will most certainly lead to a massacre. Based upon Israel’s performance elsewhere, the operation will not destroy the capabilities of the Qassam Brigades or other factions in Rafah. The only consequence of this operation will be the mass killing of Palestinians and possible displacement into Egyptian territory, which will have long-lasting consequences in the future.

Third, the Rafah operation could lead to “disastrous consequences,” according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who believes that Israel may indeed try to force the Palestinians out. There actually was speculation that Egypt may even abrogate its 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel which would mark an unprecedented shift in the Middle East region’s geopolitics. While this may be hard to fathom, given Egypt’s close relations with the United States, the party that sponsored the treaty and continues to do so, it reflects the gravity of things to come if Egypt were to feel threatened by an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Sinai.

Washington is slowly waking up to the potential geopolitical, electoral, and legal consequences of participating in Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Still, the Biden administration and high-ranking officials are unwilling to match this realization with tangible policy changes. Instead, they are hoping that reports on interpersonal feuds and rhetorical gestures regarding protecting civilian lives will suffice. They will not. The mismanagement of this catastrophe began well before October 7 with a Middle East policy that sidelined Palestinians and ignored constituent demands on Palestinian rights. The key difference now is a matter of scale: Israel’s genocide has sparked a mass movement in the United States that is impossible to ignore. Ultimately, US officials failed to anticipate that enabling Israel’s abuses of the Palestinian people would carry over into voter decisions or become a legal liability.

Unsurprisingly, these officials also failed to anticipate that regional actors would assert themselves beyond symbolic gestures and challenge the US-Israeli alliance through disrupting global trade, attacking US bases, and attacking Israel. Not only have they failed to sideline Palestinians in their attempts to dictate Middle East affairs, but Palestine has returned to the center of regional politics and is now moving toward the center of US domestic politics as well.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Ran Zisovitch