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US President Joe Biden has warned Israel that it needs a “credible” plan to protect civilians before moving ahead with a new military operation in southern Gaza near the border with Egypt.
Biden issued the warning during a call on Sunday with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, in the latest sign of unease in Washington with the conduct of the war against Hamas.
According to the White House, Biden called for “urgent and specific steps” to increase the flow and “consistency” of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians. He also said a military operation in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza, “should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there”.
Last week Biden described Israel’s military operations in Gaza as “over the top”, and US officials signalled that Washington did not want Israel to move into Rafah at this stage. But Biden has not been willing to threaten any tough consequences for Israel if it does not heed US warnings.
In a sign of growing strains in the relationship, Netanyahu’s office declined to provide details about the conversation between the two leaders, as is customary.
In two television interviews with the US media on Sunday, Netanyahu insisted — as he has done repeatedly over the past week — that an operation in Rafah was essential to destroying the last of Hamas’ fighting force and achieving Israel’s war aims.
Israeli officials have made clear that victory over Hamas requires the dismantling of the remaining four of the militant group’s battalions in Rafah and severing its control over the border crossing with Egypt that is the besieged strip’s commercial and humanitarian lifeline.
“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there. And Hamas has promised to do the October 7th massacre over and over and over again,” Netanyahu told ABC News.
The Israeli leader added that Israel was working out a “detailed plan” to evacuate civilians “out of harm’s way” to unspecified areas north of Rafah inside Gaza that the Israeli military has already cleared. Over the past four months, Israeli ground forces have worked their way from Gaza’s north to the south, with heavy fighting continuing in the city of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah.
Yet one person with knowledge of Israeli deliberations said that despite the tough public talk of an imminent incursion into Rafah, there was no plan as yet to launch such an operation.
“The [Israelis] don’t know what they want to do, and there’s lots of confusion surrounding Rafah,” the person added, alluding to both US and Egyptian concerns about the estimated 1.4mn displaced civilians who have sheltered in the city.
Cairo has described any move that pushes Gazan residents into the neighbouring country as a “red line”, although several people with knowledge of the issue have said that Egypt has not officially threatened to suspend its 1979 peace agreement with Israel.
Still, the Egyptian foreign ministry on Sunday said that targeting Rafah and obstructing humanitarian supplies would amount to “a policy of forced displacement of the Palestinian people and the liquidation of the Palestinian cause”.
According to the person familiar with Israeli deliberations, “Israel understands the sensitivity surrounding Rafah, they see the US siding with Egypt on the issue” and fears damaging relations with both states.
In the US, Biden has been facing increasing pressure from within his own Democratic party to be firmer with Netanyahu and use American leverage to persuade Israel to avoid more civilian casualties, suffering and displacement.
“Clearing Rafah is not war, it is not defence, it is an outright attack on the innocent,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman, wrote on X at the weekend. She added it was time for the US to use its “levers” to stop a “humanitarian disaster”.
Meanwhile, the US has been pushing hard for Israel and Hamas to agree to a new truce that would allow for the release of the remaining hostages captured by Hamas in October.
According to the White House, Biden told Netanyahu it was time to “capitalise” on “progress made in the negotiations”.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo.