May 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Rafah assault threatens to be Israel breaking point for Democrats

Smoke billows beneath a gray sky in the Gazan city of Rafah.

Smoke billows after Israeli bombardment in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 6, 2024. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Democrats in Congress are furious as Israel moves into the southern Gaza city of Rafah after they and President Biden spent months trying to prevent such an operation.

Why it matters: A full-scale invasion could be a sea-change moment for Democrats on Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, with whom relations have become increasingly strained.

  • "I think it's going to further erode Democrat support," one House Democrat engaged on the issue told Axios.
  • Another expressed "profound disappointment" that Netanyahu "apparently would rather prolong this war and has forsaken the hostages."

What's happening: Israeli forces moved into the city on Monday in a limited operation aimed at seizing control of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, Axios' Barak Ravid reported.

  • At the same time, the Israeli Defense Forces have been conducting air strikes on Hamas targets in the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah.
  • The invasion comes as Israel says it remains far apart from Hamas on a deal to release Israeli hostages in Gaza and institute a ceasefire.

Zoom out: Biden and Democrats have long feared that an invasion of the city, in which over a million Palestinian refugees are sheltering, would be a humanitarian catastrophe.

  • Groups of Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly called for the Biden administration to consider restricting weapons transfers to Gaza to either head off or punish a Rafah invasion.
  • The Biden administration put a hold on a shipment of U.S.-made ammunition to Israel last week, the first such halt since Oct. 7.

What they're saying: "The Israelis should, over time, root out the people who perpetrated Oct. 7, but collectively we have a huge issue with the humanitarian situation," House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Jim Himes (D-Conn.) told Axios.

  • Himes warned that an invasion of Rafah would move hostage and ceasefire talks in the "wrong direction."
  • Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), a staunch Israel supporter, told Axios: "We're obviously very concerned about the continuation of this war when we feel so close to reaching a ceasefire and seeing hostages returned."

Between the lines: One House Democrat who has pushed for Biden to condition military aid to Israel said the Rafah assault "has the potential of making our case for us."

  • Another House Democrat said the Biden administration has "intimated that they're going to publicly criticize Netanyahu" over a Rafah invasion, and "at that point they probably will start conditioning or curtailing arms."
  • Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a vocal critic of Israel, told Axios that "all of this makes things worse for Israel in the long run, in terms of how people perceive Israel on the global stage."

The other side: Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) told Axios he has "grave concerns about Israel's security — Hamas has said they will attack time and time again."

  • Schneider said Israel "has to do everything it can to minimize civilian casualties," but "the cards are in Hamas' hands. They have to make the right choice for their people."
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