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US President Joe Biden has warned Israel it needs a “credible” plan to protect civilians before launching a new military operation in southern Gaza, near the border with Egypt.
Biden made the warning during a call Sunday with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, the latest sign of unease in Washington over the conduct of the war against Hamas.
According to the White House, Biden called for “urgent and specific measures” to increase the flow and “consistency” of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians. He also said a military operation in Rafah, a town in southern Gaza, “should not take place without a credible and enforceable plan for the security and support of the more than a million people sheltering there.” “.
Last week, Biden called Israeli military operations in Gaza “exaggerated,” and U.S. officials indicated that Washington did not want Israel to move into Rafah at this point. But Biden is unwilling to threaten serious consequences for Israel if it does not heed U.S. warnings.
In a sign of growing tensions in relations, Netanyahu’s office declined to provide details of the conversation between the two leaders, as is customary.
In two television interviews with US media on Sunday, Netanyahu insisted – as he has repeatedly over the past week – that an operation in Rafah was essential to destroy the remaining Hamas fighting forces and achieve Israel’s war goals.
Israeli officials have made clear that victory over Hamas requires dismantling the militant group’s remaining four battalions in Rafah and severing its control over the border crossing with Egypt that is the strip’s commercial and humanitarian lifeline. besieged.
“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying that we should lose the war and keep Hamas there. And Hamas promised to carry out the October 7 massacre again and again,” Netanyahu told ABC News.
The Israeli leader added that Israel was developing a “detailed plan” to evacuate civilians “out of danger” to unspecified areas north of Rafah, inside Gaza, which the Israeli army has already cleared. Over the past four months, Israeli ground forces have advanced from the north to the south of Gaza, while heavy fighting continues in the town of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah.
Yet a person with knowledge of Israeli deliberations said that despite tough public talk about an imminent Rafah incursion, there was no plan yet to launch such an operation.
“THE [Israelis] I don’t know what they want to do, and there is a lot of confusion around Rafah,” the person added, alluding to U.S. and Egyptian concerns about the 1.4 million displaced civilians who have taken refuge in the city.
Cairo has called any move pushing Gaza residents into the neighboring country a “red line,” although several people with knowledge of the matter said Egypt had not officially threatened to suspend its 1979 peace deal with Israel. .
Yet Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that targeting Rafah and hindering humanitarian supplies would amount to “a policy of forced displacement of the Palestinian people and liquidation of the Palestinian cause.”
According to the person familiar with Israeli deliberations, “Israel understands the sensitivity surrounding Rafah, sees the United States siding with Egypt on the issue” and fears damaging relations with both states.
In the United States, Biden faces growing pressure from his own Democratic Party to get tougher with Netanyahu and use American influence to persuade Israel to avoid more civilian casualties, suffering and displacement.
“Cleaning up Rafah is not a war, it is not a defense, it is an outright attack on innocent people,” New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on X this weekend. She added that it was time for the United States to use its “levers” to end a “humanitarian disaster.”
Meanwhile, the United States has been pushing for Israel and Hamas to agree to a new truce that would allow the release of remaining hostages captured by Hamas in October.
According to the White House, Biden told Netanyahu it was time to “capitalize” on the “progress made in the negotiations.”
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo.