MARK ALMOND Netanyahu is being drawn into a Hamas trap

MARK ALMOND: Netanyahu is being drawn into a Hamas trap that aims to wipe Israel off the map by triggering a catastrophic war. Here's how he can avoid it…

The city of Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, may currently be the most densely populated place on earth.

Five months ago, before the bloody atrocities of Hamas terrorists on October 7 and Israel's furious response, the city was already full of people.

Since then, the population has increased fivefold from around 280,000 residents to nearly 1.5 million, crammed into an area of ​​23 square miles. Refugees live ten to a room, if they are lucky enough to find accommodation at all. Most are on the streets.

Medicine, fuel, food and water are in extremely short supply, and what little is available is ruthlessly controlled by Hamas' criminal network.

It is also a hotbed of terrorism. If Israel wants to destroy the leaders of this fanatical Islamist hate cult, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops must attack Rafah.

The cost to civilian lives will be high. And the cost to Israel could also be catastrophic if Western governments withdraw their increasingly ambiguous support.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under enormous pressure in the country to take down Hamas. But when he attacks Rafah, he falls into a trap.

The psychopathic Palestinian warlords delight in the slaughter of women and children because they believe it will trigger an avalanche of Arab anger that will wipe Israel off the map for good.

So Israel faces a hateful enemy ready to use human shields.

This has close and disturbing parallels to the destruction of Berlin or Dresden in Germany at the end of World War II: one was Hitler's capital, the other a military transport hub with beautiful Baroque architecture that housed countless refugees.

Stalin's Red Army fought its way to Hitler's bunker, while the RAF leveled large parts of Dresden in a series of firebombing attacks, killing around 25,000 civilians. The Allies were deeply divided over this tactic, and historians still argue about its morality.

Nazism represented a global threat. In contrast, many view the war in Gaza as bad but local. But Israelis, living in the shadow of the Holocaust, recognize Hamas as a deadly threat with strong local support.

Therefore, for most Israelis, debate is unnecessary. They know that their country is doomed if Hamas is not destroyed.

This is a war for survival. The October 7 massacre was so full of viciousness that Israelis have every right to believe that this is how the terrorists want to see every Jew die: raped, burned alive, dismembered.

Until October, Netanyahu was widely viewed by voters as a paranoid and corrupt politician who clung to power to avoid prison time. But since the Hamas rampage, most Israelis have accused him of not taking tough enough action against Palestinian violence.

Hamas strategists suspected that their atrocities would lure Netanyahu into a trap. Israel would hit back hard, but its Western allies would get cold feet over civilian casualties. Our leaders held their nerve as the IDF invaded from the coast and north of the Gaza Strip, an area roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, 25 miles long and in some places just seven miles wide. But the West is now losing courage in this campaign.

Already, according to Hamas' unreliable figures, many of the 29,000 killed were non-combatants. In Gaza City in the north, every second building is said to have been destroyed. Since it borders the Mediterranean on one side, all flights are banned and residents cannot flee to neighboring Israel, many have no choice but to trek south to Rafah.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

In Rafah, medicine, fuel, food and water are extremely scarce, and what little is available is ruthlessly controlled by Hamas' criminal network, writes Mark Almond

In Rafah, medicine, fuel, food and water are extremely scarce, and what little is available is ruthlessly controlled by Hamas' criminal network, writes Mark Almond

Once they arrive in Rafah, they cannot flee any further. Egypt has closed its narrow border fearing a massive influx of Hamas militants among refugees, risking an Islamist insurgency in Egypt that will topple President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's regime.

So what to do?

In this international crisis, each country first thinks about its own priorities.

In the US, President Biden's team is all too aware of the upcoming election in November.

The pro-Israel lobby in the US is traditionally powerful and the Jewish electorate tends to support Democrats – but the growing number of Muslim-American voters could turn crucial swing states against the incumbent.

Here the Labor Party is experiencing its worst internal crisis since Keir Starmer came to power. The radical left is demanding an immediate “ceasefire” from its MPs – a euphemism for Israel’s surrender.

Dozens of Labor councilors have resigned from the party in protest at its nuanced stance on Palestine.

On the streets of Britain and across the West, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have been shouting inflammatory and often anti-Semitic slogans for months. A radical subculture is spreading, the core of which is racial hatred.

The disgraced former Labor candidate in the Rochdale parliamentary by-election spread obscene conspiracy theories that Israel sponsored the Hamas massacre and that the entire Islamic world is under attack by Jews.

Incredibly, audiences at a London theater this week persecuted a Jewish man who refused to cheer the Palestine flag. They were cheered on by the comedian on stage and shouted “Get out” and “Liberate Palestine”. This is a scene reminiscent of Berlin in the 1930s.

I fear that although the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is ultimately Hamas's fault – after all, the terrorists provoked Israel's counterattack – Netanyahu's violent response has since played into the hands of his enemy. International courts are considering “genocide” charges against the Israeli government and military. A Dutch court has already blocked the export of spare parts for the Israeli Air Force.

Friends of Israel, such as our Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, have begun pressuring Jerusalem to accept “an immediate cessation of fighting” – a polite phrase for a ceasefire.

But Netanyahu shows no signs of responding to such appeals. In fact, he and his generals seem determined to continue at all costs. Which begs the question: What would an Israeli victory mean?

Because even if the IDF managed to capture or kill Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and his fighters, they would be faced with the problem of what to do with the 1.5 million embittered Palestinians who still face a miserable The devastated Gaza Strip needs to think about the future.

Faced with a similar dilemma in the final months of World War II, the Allies decided on a strategy to win hearts and minds: they distributed medicine and restored water supplies in West Germany even before Berlin finally surrendered, and then financed through the Allies a major restructuring program Marshall Plan.

Likewise, the world's best hope might now be deeply counterintuitive. If Netanyahu lifts his aid blockade and allows humanitarian aid to enter Gaza – food, water, medicine, fuel – he could convince Palestinians that Hamas, not Israel, is their mortal enemy.

Yes, a group of Hamas terrorists could seize many of the aid trucks. Those who need this precious cargo most, the women and children, may get little.

But it will be an important gesture for Israel to say: “We do not hate all Palestinians – only our enemies who want to kill us.” Such low hopes are the best we have – and they require the most skillful governance and military planning to avert a multitude of new disasters.

Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute in Oxford.