The city of Rafah, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, may currently be the most densely populated place on Earth.
Five months ago, before the bloody atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on October 7 and Israel’s angry response, the city was already packed with people.
Since then, its population of about 280,000 has quintupled to nearly 1.5 million, crammed into 23 square miles. Refugees live ten people per room, if they are lucky enough to have shelter. Most are on the streets.
Medicine, fuel, food and water are in desperate short supply, and what little exists is ruthlessly controlled by the Hamas criminal network.
It is also a terrorist stronghold. If Israel wants to eliminate the leaders of this fanatical Islamist hate cult, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops will have to attack Rafah.
The cost in civilian lives will be high. And the cost to Israel could also be catastrophic if Western governments withdraw their increasingly ambiguous support.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under immense pressure within the country to take down Hamas. But if he attacks Rafah, he will fall into a trap.
The psychopathic Palestinian warlords are happy to see women and children slaughtered, because they believe this will provoke an avalanche of Arab anger that will eventually wipe Israel off the map.
Israel, then, faces an enemy full of hate and willing to use human shields.
This has close and disturbing parallels with the destruction of Berlin or Dresden in Germany at the end of World War II: one Hitler’s capital, the other a military transport hub, with beautiful baroque architecture housing countless refugees.
Stalin’s Red Army fought its way into Hitler’s bunker while the RAF leveled much of Dresden in a series of firebomb attacks, killing some 25,000 civilians. The Allies were deeply divided over this tactic and historians still argue over its morality.
Nazism posed a global threat. By contrast, many see the war in Gaza as unpleasant but local. However, Israelis, living in the shadow of the Holocaust, recognize Hamas as a deadly threat and one that has strong local support.
Therefore, for most Israelis, the debate is unnecessary. They know that if they don’t crush Hamas, their country is doomed.
This is a war of survival. The October 7 massacre was so steeped in evil that Israelis are justified in believing that terrorists want to see all Jews die like this: raped, burned alive, dismembered.
Until October, voters viewed Netanyahu as a paranoid and corrupt politician clinging to power to avoid jail. But since the Hamas attack, most Israelis blame it for not being tough enough on Palestinian violence.
Hamas strategists assumed their atrocities would draw Netanyahu into a trap. Israel would respond forcefully, but its Western allies would balk at civilian casualties. Our leaders remained calm as the IDF invaded from the coast and north of the Gaza Strip, an area roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, 25 miles long and just seven miles wide at some points. But the West is now losing the stomach for this campaign.
Many of the 29,000 dead – according to unreliable Hamas figures – were no longer combatants. In Gaza City to the north, all other buildings are reported to have been destroyed. Bordered on one side by the Mediterranean, with all flights banned and residents unable to flee to neighboring Israel, many had no choice but to travel south to Rafah.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Rafah, medicine, fuel, food and water are desperately scarce, and what little exists is ruthlessly controlled by the Hamas criminal network, writes Mark Almond.
Once in Rafah, they will no longer be able to flee. Egypt has closed its narrow border fearing a mass influx of Hamas fighters among the refugees, risking an Islamist uprising in Egypt that topples President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime.
So what the hell to do?
In this international crisis, each country is thinking first about its own priorities.
In the United States, President Biden’s team is well aware of the upcoming November elections.
The pro-Israel lobby in the United States is traditionally powerful and the Jewish electorate tends to back Democrats, but the growing number of Muslim-American voters could turn crucial swing states against the incumbent president.
Here, the Labor Party is experiencing its most serious internal crisis since Keir Starmer came to power, with the far left demanding its MPs support an immediate “ceasefire”, a euphemism for Israeli surrender.
Dozens of Labor councilors have resigned from the party in protest at its nuanced position on Palestine.
On the streets of Britain and across the West, hundreds of thousands of protesters have been shouting inflammatory and often anti-Semitic slogans for months. A radical subculture is spreading, the core of which is racial hatred.
The disgraced former Labor candidate in the Rochdale parliamentary by-election promoted obscene conspiracy theories that Israel encouraged the Hamas massacre and that the entire Islamic world is under attack by Jews.
Incredibly, this week a London theater audience chased a Jew who refused to cheer for the Palestinian flag. They were whipped by the comedian on stage, shouting “Get out” and “Free Palestine.” It is a scene reminiscent of Berlin in the 1930s.
My fear is that although the humanitarian disaster in Gaza is ultimately Hamas’s fault (after all, the terrorists provoked Israel’s counterattack), Netanyahu’s ferocious response since then has played into his enemy’s hands. International courts are considering “genocide” charges against the Israeli government and military. A Dutch court has already blocked the export of spare parts for the Israeli air force.
Friends of Israel, such as our Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, have begun to pressure Jerusalem to agree to “an immediate pause in the fighting”, a polite phrase for a ceasefire.
But Netanyahu shows no signs of responding to such calls. In fact, he and his generals seem determined to move forward at all costs. Which begs the question: what would constitute an Israeli victory?
After all, even if the IDF manages to capture or kill Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and his fighters, this would leave them with the problem of what to do with the 1.5 million bitter Palestinians left contemplating a miserable future in devastated Gaza.
Faced with a similar dilemma in the final months of World War II, the Allies opted for a strategy of winning hearts and minds: distribute medicine and restore water supplies to West Germany even before Berlin finally surrendered, and then finance a massive restructuring program through the Marshall Plan.
In the same way, the world’s best hope now might be deeply counterintuitive. If Netanyahu reverses his aid blockade and allows humanitarian aid to reach Gaza (food, water, medicine, fuel) he could persuade the Palestinians that Hamas is his mortal enemy, not Israel.
Yes, a group of Hamas terrorists could seize many of the aid trucks. Those who need this precious cargo most, women and children, may receive little.
But it will be an important gesture for Israel to say: “We do not hate all Palestinians, only our enemies who want to kill us.” Those slim hopes are the best we have, and it will take the most skillful political skill, as well as military planning, to avoid a series of new catastrophes.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute at Oxford.