President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that a military operation in the overcrowded city of Rafah in southern Gaza should not proceed unless a plan for “ensuring the safety” of the population was laid out first, the White House said.
Rafah, on the border with Egypt, has remained the last refuge for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s relentless bombardment elsewhere in the Gaza Strip in its four-month war against Hamas, triggered by the group’s October 7 attack.
The United States, United Nations and many governments have voiced deep concern over Netanyahu’s plans to invade the city, where some 1.4 million people have crowded, with many living in tents amid increasingly scarce supplies of food, water and medicine.
Biden “reaffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there,” the White House said in a readout of the two leaders’ Sunday morning call.
A senior US administration official added that “under current conditions” Washington “could not support a military operation in Rafah because of the density of the population.”
The civilian population has “nowhere to go,” the official said.
Netanyahu, in extracts of an interview published Saturday evening, insisted the Rafah operation would go ahead “while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave.”
When pressed about where the population was supposed to go, Netanyahu said in the interview aired Sunday: “You know, the areas that we’ve cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there. But, we are working out a detailed plan.”
Not entering Rafah and confronting holdout Hamas battalions would amount to losing the war, the prime minister said.
– ‘Progress’ on new hostage deal –
Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
The health ministry in Gaza says the massive Israeli offensive in response has killed at least 28,064 people, mostly women and children.
Hamas also seized some 250 hostages, with 132 remaining in Gaza.
The White House official said “significant progress” had been made on a potential deal to release hostages and secure a temporary pause in fighting, while noting “significant gaps” remain.
“We’re hoping to be able to make some progress here over the coming week,” the official said. “Most of the call today was focused on that issue.”
Hamas, meanwhile, warned Israel on Sunday that a ground offensive in Rafah would imperil future hostage releases.
The Sunday morning call is the first announced contact between Biden and Netanyahu since the US president said he viewed Israel’s military campaign in Gaza as being “over the top.”
“There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble, dying, and it’s got to stop,” Biden told reporters on Thursday, in comments widely perceived as a harshening of his tone against Israel.