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The Guardian view on hope and despair in Gaza: attacking Rafah will compound this disaster | Editorial

The Guardian view on hope and despair in Gaza: attacking Rafah will compound this disaster | Editorial
The Guardian view on hope and despair in Gaza: attacking Rafah will compound this disaster | Editorial


Men, women and children danced in the streets of Rafah on Monday after Hamas said it had approved a ceasefire deal. There was little to celebrate. Hours later, Israel ordered 100,000 in the city to flee and protesters took to the streets in Israel warning that the government was endangering the lives of surviving hostages taken on 7 October. Shortly afterwards, Israeli forces took control of the Palestinian side of the crossing with Egypt – the key entry point for aid – and shut off supplies.

Hopes of a deal have been raised and dashed repeatedly. There are differing accounts of what precisely Hamas agreed to, including the timing of hostage releases and – most painfully – whether their figure includes the dead as well as the living. Continued fighting does not negate negotiations to end a conflict. But the end of the war is likely to mean the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s prime ministership and polling suggests that while most Israelis prioritise a deal to release hostages over military action in Rafah, that is reversed among the rightwing voters on whom Mr Netanyahu’s future rests.

The Biden administration is desperate to close down a conflict that threatens further regional escalation and is costing it precious domestic support in an election year. A week ago it told Hamas that Israel had made an “extraordinarily generous offer”; this time, a US official suggested that Israel had not approached the latest talks “in good faith”. Whether Washington will do more than scold remains unclear, though last weekend saw a report that it had put on hold the delivery of ammunition. Joe Biden previously called an invasion of Rafah a red line – but immediately walked that back.

The administration is due to tell Congress this week whether it believes Israel is abiding by international law. Critics have already made it clear that they simply won’t believe any assurance that it is complying on humanitarian assistance. “Anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that that’s just not true,” the Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen said last week. Pressure is also growing on the UK government over the lack of clear consequences for Israel’s actions in Rafah.

Mr Netanyahu – an arch political survivor who always plays for time – may see airstrikes and the seizure of the crossing as enough to keep at bay the far-right ministers he needs to stay in power, without going further. The consequences of these actions are bad enough. Humanitarian relief remains grotesquely inadequate and famine has taken hold. At a time when it is more essential than ever to understand what is happening in Gaza, authorities shamefully shut down the offices of Al Jazeera in Israel, branding the news organisation a threat to national security.

An intensification of the operation should be unthinkable: it would vastly increase the disaster. Many of those now in Rafah were forced to flee from other parts of Gaza. Ordering evacuation is pointless when there is nowhere safe to go. Unicef says 600,000 children are in the city. According to Gaza’s health authorities, 14,000 minors have already been killed, along with 6,000 mothers: there are 19,000 new war orphans.

While rumours swirl, and discussions shift, the imperatives are unchanged: an immediate ceasefire, the restoration and ramping up of aid supplies and the release of hostages. The cost of failure grows every day.

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