Middle East Crisis: Israeli Forces Push Deeper Into Rafah

By John Mercury May 23, 2024

News Analysis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arriving for a party meeting in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit…Oren Ben Hakoon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel took several tough diplomatic blows over the past week, some of which had been feared for years. Yet the rising outcry against Israel abroad appears not to have swayed the Israeli public, whose views on the country’s military campaign in Gaza are largely different from those of the rest of the world.

Just this week, Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, announced he was seeking arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister and defense minister on charges of crimes against humanity, alongside three leaders of Hamas; three European countries announced they would recognize a Palestinian state; and Israel backed down on seizing equipment from The Associated Press after an international backlash.

But Israeli leaders are looking first and foremost to their public, which, analysts say, still views the war with Hamas in Gaza as an existential conflict. While international support for Israel has eroded over its devastating military response in Gaza — with over 35,000 people dead, according to health authorities there — Israelis have largely remained focused on the brutality of the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks and the fate of hostages taken that day.

Political analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu hopes to leverage the rising international criticism to tamp down frustration at home over his failure to either decisively defeat Hamas or bring home the remaining hostages in Gaza. Some of Mr. Netanyahu’s key rivals rallied to his defense on Monday after Mr. Khan announced that he would seek a warrant for his arrest.

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

For many Israelis, memories of the massacre in southern Israel — in which roughly 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage, according to the Israeli authorities — remain a constant backdrop to the conflict. Months later, Israeli news media still continually airs the stories of victims, survivors and the families of those held hostage in Gaza.

“Israelis have been living and reliving the horrors of that day — but also with an eye toward the possibility that it could one day be repeated,” said Natan Sachs, who directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “That fear is a key driver of both Israeli policy and public support for policy.”

There is swelling discontent among Israelis, many of whom are frustrated with the failure of their government to bring home the remaining 128 living and dead hostages. Others, including senior Israeli officials, are frustrated with Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to articulate a clear endgame for what could become an interminable conflict.

But calls for a cease-fire for its own sake have found little purchase. Israel’s leaders — including some of Mr. Netanyahu’s top rivals — generally support the ongoing Israeli military operation in Rafah, which U.N. officials estimate has displaced over 800,000 Palestinians. U.S. officials have repeatedly raised concerns over the assault in meetings with their Israeli counterparts.

In the face of the decision by Spain, Norway, and Ireland to recognize a Palestinian state on Wednesday, Israeli officials tried to turn the conversation back to Oct. 7. Israel recalled its ambassadors, and the foreign minister, Israel Katz, said he would screen footage of the abduction of five female soldiers during the Hamas attack for them during a “severe reprimand.”

Mr. Netanyahu and other members of his right-wing coalition have reacted with defiance to criticism from abroad. He called the decision of the three European nations to recognize Palestinian statehood “a prize for terrorism” and excoriated the I.C.C. prosecutor for suggesting that Hamas fighters and Israeli forces had both committed crimes during the current war.

“How dare you compare the monsters of Hamas to the soldiers of the Israeli Army, the world’s most moral military?” Mr. Netanyahu said.

One of the biggest questions, however, is how long Mr. Netanyahu can stoke public grievance against international criticism at home without further damaging Israel’s ties with key allies abroad, including the United States.

“In terms of policy, it’s absolutely disastrous and will have long-term consequences,” Mr. Sachs said. “But in terms of politics, it may be working.”

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