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Exploring Rafah: Three Key Questions – The New York Times

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The impending conflict in Rafah, a city in the southern region of Gaza, encapsulates the brutal dynamics of the ongoing war. The war is not only a military operation against Hamas, a militant group that has promised to carry out further terrorist attacks against Israel, but also a humanitarian crisis that has caused death, starvation, and displacement among Gaza’s civilian population.

The scope of the humanitarian crisis is evident. Israel’s four-month invasion of Gaza has resulted in the deaths of more than 29,000 people, including many children. The civilian casualty rate, as a percentage of the overall population, is among the highest in any modern conflict. Additionally, a significant number of Gazans have been forced to flee their homes and are struggling to secure food. An assault on Rafah, which has become a safe haven for over half of Gaza’s population, would exacerbate the already dire situation.

At the same time, experts assert that Rafah holds significant military importance for Hamas. On October 7, Hamas carried out a raid on Israel, resulting in the murder, sexual assault, and abduction of civilians. Since the raid, Hamas leaders have refused to release dozens of Israeli hostages. With Israel having gained control of large portions of northern and central Gaza, it is assumed that some Hamas leaders and their weapons are located in tunnels beneath Rafah.

Therefore, two concurrent realities hold true: in order to neutralize a violent adversary, Israel may need to launch an offensive in Rafah. However, such an invasion would undoubtedly exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and the civilian death toll.

In this newsletter, we will explore three key questions: What does Israel aim to achieve through an invasion? What measures could prevent a full-scale invasion? And how could the human toll be mitigated if an invasion does take place?

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Israel’s objectives:

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, has articulated an ambitious goal: the complete eradication of Hamas. This objective, however, is polarizing. Some Israelis are urging their government to prioritize the release of hostages, while many U.S. officials view the elimination of Hamas as unrealistic, citing that military operations targeting militants often radicalize others.

Despite the contentiousness surrounding the goal, an invasion of Rafah could substantially weaken Hamas’s position. Yonah Jeremy Bob, The Jerusalem Post’s senior military correspondent, noted that without control of Rafah, “Hamas would lose its last major remaining battalions, its last large city for hiding its leadership and human-shield hostages, and its only remaining way to rearm and smuggle in weapons from outside of Gaza.”

A visible demonstration of Rafah’s importance to Hamas occurred during a nocturnal raid, when Israeli forces stormed a building in Rafah and rescued two hostages. Evidently, an invasion could debilitate Hamas, albeit at the cost of a worsening humanitarian catastrophe.

Can an invasion be avoided?

The most probable means of forestalling an invasion would entail the negotiation of a prolonged ceasefire in exchange for the release of around 130 hostages, who remain in Hamas’s captivity in Gaza. Benny Gantz, a centrist Israeli politician who joined the government after the October attacks by Hamas, declared, “Either our hostages will be returned, or we will expand the fighting to Rafah.”

Certain impediments stand in the way of reaching an agreement. Hamas leaders are well aware that the hostages provide them with leverage, and Netanyahu has generally appeared more inclined to dismantling Hamas than securing the release of hostages. Furthermore, Israel has been reluctant to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for hostages. Despite these obstacles, pressure is mounting on Netanyahu domestically to secure the release of the hostages. It is also believed that a ceasefire could allow Hamas leaders to save their own lives.

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Protecting civilians:

If Israel does launch an invasion, leaders across the world have urged it to prioritize the protection of civilians in Rafah. According to President Biden and leaders of several other nations, Israel has shown little regard for civilian lives during the initial four months of the war. Recently, the International Court of Justice declined to oppose an invasion of Rafah but reiterated its requirement for Israel to safeguard civilians. The court also instructed Hamas to release the hostages.

The question arises, how could the civilians in Rafah be effectively protected? In many conflicts, civilians often seek refuge in neighboring countries. However, Egypt has largely refused to receive refugees and is instead building a barrier near Rafah. While some military experts argue that Israel has taken steps to safeguard civilians, such as creating humanitarian corridors to allow civilian Gazans to flee battle zones, it is believed that Israel could do more to reduce the civilian death toll.

Inside Rafah, residents are gripped by fear and uncertainty. “We’re trying to live with the war conditions, but they are very difficult,” said Salem Baris, a 55-year-old who sought refuge in Rafah. He described how 10 children in his family have been wearing adult-sized hospital coveralls to keep warm. The hope for an end to the nightmare weighs heavily on the hearts of many Gazans.

In conclusion, the situation in Rafah is emblematic of the wider conflict in Gaza. It is not only a political and military struggle but also a grave humanitarian crisis. As the world watches with bated breath, it is clear that the decisions made in the coming days and weeks will have far-reaching consequences for the people of Rafah, Gaza, and beyond. It is essential for all parties involved to take into account the consequences of their actions on civilians and strive for a resolution that mitigates the suffering of innocent lives.

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Chats and reflections on the present moment.

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Lydia Polgreen

Credit…Will Heath/NBC, via Getty Images

It is a rare thing in our rapidly secularizing country to be confronted with piety and devotion in popular culture. So it was a surprise, and a balm, to watch a man who prays daily and talks openly about his devout faith storm a bastion of earthly godlessness: “Saturday Night Live.”

I am referring, of course, to the comedian Ramy Youssef, who hosted the show on what he described in his opening monologue as “an incredibly spiritual weekend,” noting Ramadan, Easter and the arrival of a new Beyoncé album.

“I’m doing the Ramadan one,” he quipped, to peals of laughter, unspooling a very funny bit about how loving Muslims are. Youssef has mined his experience as a believer among the profane in gentle standup specials and a namesake sitcom. His entire monologue glowed with a welcoming warmth — Muslims, he seemed to say: We’re just like you.

In a country that is supposedly obsessed with diversity and inclusion, it is remarkable how rare it is to hear from a practicing Muslim in America.

Surveys by the Institute for Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan research organization focused on Muslim Americans, have consistently found that Muslims are the most likely group to report religious discrimination in the United States. According to a Pew survey conducted in 2021, 78 percent of Americans said that there was either a lot or some discrimination against Muslims in our society. Muslims are no more likely to commit crimes than members of any other group, but crimes in which Muslims are suspects get outsized media coverage, research has shown.

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It is no surprise, then, that Islamophobia is perhaps the most tolerated form of religious prejudice. Right now, Senate Republicans appear to have persuaded several Senate Democrats to vote against a Muslim judicial nominee after smearing him, with no evidence at all, as an antisemite.

Many of the skits that toyed with religion on “S.N.L.” on Saturday were funny — Ozempic for Ramadan! Genius. But part of me winced through them as well, because I saw in Youssef something that other members of minority groups have had to do to “earn” their place in the safety of the mainstream: the performance of normalcy, of being nonthreatening and sweet, the requirement to prove that your community belongs in America just like everyone else’s.

I loved Youssef’s monologue, in which he bravely pleaded, “Please, free the people of Palestine. And please, free the hostages. All of the hostages.”

“I am out of ideas,” Youssef declared toward the end of his monologue. “All I have is prayers.”

To which this nonbeliever can only say: Same, Ramy. Same.

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