Deeply concerned about prospective Israeli operation in Rafah: Biden tells Netanyahu

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Washington: US President Joe Biden has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is deeply concerned about the prospect of Israel conducting major military operations in Rafah on the lines of those in Gaza City and Khan Younis, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.

During his telephonic conversation with Biden on Monday, Netanyahu agreed to send an inter-agency team of Israeli officials to Washington to hold discussions on an alternative approach to target key Hamas elements in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and secure the Egypt-Gaza border without a major ground invasion, Sullivan said at his daily press conference on Monday.

This was the first time in a month that the two leaders spoke on phone.

Sullivan said Biden and Netanyahu spoke at length about Rafah.

“The President explained why he is so deeply concerned about the prospect of Israel conducting major military operations in Rafah of the kind it conducted in Gaza City and Khan Younis,” the NSA said.

More than a million people have taken refuge in Rafah. They went from Gaza City to Khan Younis and then to Rafah. They have nowhere else to go. Gaza’s other major cities have largely been destroyed, he said.

And Israel has not presented the US or the world with a plan on how or where it would safely move those civilians, let alone feed and house them and ensure access to basic things like sanitation, he added.

Sullivan said Rafah is a primary entry point for humanitarian assistance into Gaza from Egypt and a military operation in the city would shut it down.

“Rafah is on the border with Egypt, which has voiced its deep alarm over a major military operation there and has even raised questions about its future relationship with Israel as a result of any impending military operation,” he said.

“Now, the President has rejected, and did again today, the strawman that raising questions about Rafah is the same as raising questions about defeating Hamas. That’s just nonsense.

“Our position is that Hamas should not be allowed a safe haven in Rafah or anywhere else. But a major ground operation there would be a mistake. It would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza, and further isolate Israel internationally,” he said.

“Most importantly, the key goals Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be achieved by other means,” he said.

During the call, Biden asked Netanyahu to send a senior inter-agency team comprising military, intelligence and humanitarian officials to Washington in the coming days to hear the US’ concerns about Israel’s plans for Rafah and to lay out an alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements in the city and secure the Egypt-Gaza border without a major ground invasion, according to Sullivan.

Netanyahu agreed to send a team.

“Obviously, he has his own point of view on a Rafah operation but he agreed that he would send a team to Washington to have this discussion and have this engagement. And we look forward to those discussions,” Sullivan said.

He said the two leaders also discussed the ongoing negotiations for an immediate ceasefire for several weeks in return for the release of hostages currently being held by Hamas and other militants in Gaza.

“We would look to build on that ceasefire into something more enduring and use the space created by a cessation of hostilities to surge humanitarian assistance at a vital moment. So far, this deal has been more elusive than we would have hoped. But we will keep pressing because we regard this as an urgent priority,” the NSA said.

Biden emphasised his “bone-deep commitment” to ensuring the long-term security of Israel and affirmed, as he did in the State of the Union address, that Israel has a right to go after Hamas, the perpetrators of the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust, Sullivan said.

The NSA noted that Israel has made significant progress against Hamas.

“They’ve broken a significant number of Hamas battalions, killed thousands of Hamas fighters, including senior commanders. Hamas’ number three, Marwan Issa, was killed in an Israeli operation last week. The rest of the top leaders are in hiding, likely deep in the Hamas tunnel network and justice will come for them too, and we are helping to ensure that,” Sullivan said.

At the same time, more innocent civilians, including thousands of children, have died in this conflict than in all of the wars in Gaza combined. A humanitarian crisis has descended across Gaza and anarchy reigns in areas that Israel’s military has cleared but not stabilised, he added.

The President, Sullivan said, has repeatedly made the point that continuing military operations needs to be connected to a clear strategic endgame.

Biden told Netanyahu again that they share the goal of defeating Hamas. “But we just believe you need a coherent and sustainable strategy to make that happen,” Sullivan said.

“Now, instead of (a) pause to re-evaluate where things stand in the campaign and what adjustments are needed to achieve long-term success, instead of a focus on stabilising the areas of Gaza that Israel has cleared so that Hamas does not regenerate and retake territory… the Israeli government is now talking about launching a major military operation in Rafah,” he said.

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