Israel’s Incursion Into Rafah Could Be a Costly Mistake

Three days after it began, Israel’s operation in Rafah looks like a microcosm of its seven-month-long fight in Gaza: an attempt to check a tactical box rather than a strategic move with a definitive goal in the fight against Hamas.

As a limited incursion, it could be the least of Israel’s bad options, and even prove successful if it helps achieve a more favorable hostage deal or a cease-fire agreement. However, judging by the war’s conduct to date, it’s more likely that the operation will, in the end, backfire.

So far, the I.D.F. has ordered the evacuation in the eastern outskirts of the city, taken over a two-mile-long section of the so-called Philadelphi Corridor along Gaza’s border with Egypt and occupied the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing, which is not actually in the city of Rafah.

The stated goal of the operation is to wrest control of the Rafah crossing to Egypt from Hamas to stop the smuggling of arms and goods that can be used for military purposes, to carry out targeted raids and to weaken Hamas’s ability to siphon off humanitarian aid. Taking the crossing also removes Hamas control over a lifeline to the outside world and an international border — a strong symbol of sovereignty. In addition, Israel hopes that the operation will pressure Hamas to agree to a better hostage deal, which would bring about the return at least initially of all living women, elderly and injured men.

But the risk of the operation spinning out of control outweighs the likelihood of that rosiest outcome.

First, the operation has quickly brought tense Israeli-Egyptian ties to their lowest point. The risk of a diplomatic rift is imminent. Egypt clearly fears that the operation itself or a Hamas attack on the border fence could lead to an exodus of tens of thousands of Gazans into Sinai. Even short of this worst-case scenario, Egypt was reportedly furious at the unchecked behavior of I.D.F. troops on the other side of the crossing after they took it over on Tuesday, such as hoisting Israeli flags.

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