Op-ed: Day 131 of the war

Sooner or later, the IDF will enter Rafah. It may have to fight on northern border, too

Right now, the IDF has more forces poised for action against Hezbollah in Lebanon than it has fighting in Gaza

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Injured Israelis are brought to Ziv Medical Center in Safed after a Hezbollah rocket attack on February 14, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Injured Israelis are brought to Ziv Medical Center in Safed after a Hezbollah rocket attack on February 14, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

1. The war in Gaza is far from over. The potential for war in the north is growing day by day.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said Tuesday that reservists were being withdrawn from Gaza and sent back to their normal lives but would be needed again — and he was thinking of both fronts. The IDF, he specified, is “preparing for war” against the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has derided various foreign proposals that would compel him to pull his forces further back from the border, and is gradually escalating his attacks — barrages of 30 rockets a time on two days last week, intermittent targeting of a key IDF base, rocket fire that badly hurt a mother and her 15-year-old son in Kiryat Shimona on Tuesday, and deadly fire on Safed Wednesday morning, prompting what the IDF called “widespread” retaliatory airstrikes.

It’s not clear what red line Hezbollah would have to cross for Israel to significantly escalate its response. Political and military chiefs have intimated that an attack on a strategic site, or an attack with what are deemed to be major civilian casualties, or a substantive barrage on Haifa, might constitute the breaking point.

It remains the case that Israel would rather avoid war on the northern front, and certainly for so long as it is preoccupied with Gaza. But it is also the case that, with three divisions rather than the usual one now deployed in the north, the IDF has more forces poised for action on the northern border than it has fighting in Gaza right now.

2. Global pressure on Israel to end its campaign to dismantle Hamas is growing by the day.

Eighteen of Hamas’s 24 battalions are no longer functional, but the remaining organized fighting units are largely in Rafah — and much of the international community, even among Israel’s allies, is ratcheting up its vocal opposition to a major operation in the city, fearing that the army will kill unconscionable numbers of the civilians packed into the area as it tries to take on Hamas.

South Africa, the lawfare proxy of Hamas and Iran, is urging the International Court of Justice to intervene. The EU’s foreign minister Josep Borrell is encouraging Israel’s allies to simply stop sending it the weapons it needs to maintain the military campaign. A Dutch court is preventing the Dutch government from transferring American F-35 parts stored in Holland to Israel. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and US officials from President Joe Biden on down are warning that the IDF simply must not enter the southern city unless or until it has a clear and effective plan for keeping Gazan noncombatants out of harm’s way — which, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made particularly clear, they do not believe Israel has done sufficiently in the 130 days of its post-October 7 fightback thus far.

IDF Chief of Staff gives a press conference from the Gaza border, February 13, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Halevi, at his press conference on Tuesday, dryly expressed “appreciation” for the advice from Israel’s allies, but was adamant that the IDF is capable of isolating the enemy. There have been recent reports that the IDF intends to set up coastal tent camps to which civilians will be evacuated from Rafah; it has been rumored for weeks, by contrast, that the IDF intends to try to move civilians from Rafah to Khan Younis once the major fighting in that area has been completed.

One way or another, both Israel’s political and military chiefs are adamant, however, that the IDF will tackle Hamas in Rafah — the terror group’s last major largely intact stronghold, and the presumed hiding place of Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar and most of the hostages.

Hamas’s Gaza Strip leader Yahya Sinwar in a tunnel in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, October 10, 2023 (IDF Spokesman)

3. Monday’s extraction of hostages Louis Har and Fernando Marman was an extraordinary success that underlined the near-impossibility of such rescues.

It required highly specific levels of intelligence and an operation by troops in the field with no margin for error. If only a modicum of such expertise had been employed before October 7.

The rescue, the only successful one since Ori Megidish was brought home at the end of October, will make any subsequent efforts that little bit harder, now that Hamas has suffered the humiliation of the extraction and is doubtless seeking to take fresh precautions against any repeat.

Louis Har (L) and Fernando Marman (2nd R) are reunited with loved ones at Sheba Medical Center, February 12, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, while claiming the operation marked a “turning point” in the war against Hamas, to his credit acknowledged Monday that most of the hostages would have to be returned through a negotiated deal rather than IDF heroics.

Talks on that possible deal are again underway in Cairo, with Biden hoping to finalize arrangements for an initial six-week truce and an exchange of hostages for Palestinian security prisoners, and build from that toward a permanent ceasefire.

Halevi is speaking in very different terms, however, stressing on Tuesday that the IDF is committed to the central goal of securing the return of the hostages, but that once any negotiated process for their release is completed, the IDF can and will resume its campaign against Hamas with full force.

His political masters, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, adamantly share that vision. After years of single-minded preparation, Hamas invaded Israel on October 7 and its barbaric gunmen slaughtered everybody they could. It is now doing everything in its power, including leveraging the lives of the hostages it seized that day, to try to survive so that it can rebuild and slaughter Israelis again and again. If Hamas can bring the war to a premature halt, Israelis will not be able to return to their homes in the Western Negev, or sleep soundly anywhere else here for that matter — not with our enemies triumphant and emboldened. And that would spell the end for this country.

Crucially, the Biden administration is still broadly supportive, including, in principle, of the looming major IDF operation in Rafah.

President Joe Biden speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“We never said that they [the Israelis] can’t go into Rafah to remove Hamas,” said the White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby in answer to a question at a press briefing on Monday. “Hamas remains a viable threat to the Israeli people. And the Israelis and the IDF, absolutely, are going to continue operations against their leadership and their infrastructure, as they should. We don’t want to see another October 7th.

“What we’ve said,” he elaborated, “is we don’t believe that it’s advisable to go in in a major way in Rafah without a proper, executable, effective, and credible plan for the safety of the more than a million Palestinians that are taking refuge in Rafah. They’ve left the north, and they certainly went south out of Khan Younis to try to get out of the fighting. So, Israel has an obligation to make sure that they can protect them.”

The military challenge facing Israel is exacerbated by the fecklessness of some in the international community and the outright hostility to Israel of others; the lazy ignorance that characterizes so much vicious global public opinion; and the frictions and divisions that surround Netanyahu and his far-right coalition allies — domestically and internationally, including, crucially, in his relations with a now overtly frustrated President Biden. But win the war and bring home the hostages it must.

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