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Biden urges Netanyahu to shield Rafah civilians in an attack

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem, on June 25, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

President Joe Biden urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shield civilians in Gaza from an Israeli military operation in the southern city of Rafah, saying it shouldn’t proceed without a “credible and executable plan” for their safety and support.

The White House readout after a phone call between Biden and the Israeli leader followed pledges by Netanyahu in two U.S. television interviews earlier Sunday that Israel will have a plan, including directing civilians northward in the Gaza Strip to get them out of harm’s way.

“We are working out a detailed plan to do so,” Netanyahu said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” At the same time, he said Israel will go after remaining battalions of Hamas in Rafah, which sits on the border Egypt. More than 1 million Palestinians are taking shelter in Rafah, many after seeking refuge from Israeli bombardment in the north.

“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying, lose the war, keep Hamas there,” Netanyahu said. “We are not going to let Hamas emerge victorious. And if we leave, it’ll be a tremendous victory for the Iran terror axis.”

Biden last week criticized the extent of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, calling it “over the top” and escalating his criticism of Netanyahu after the Israeli leader previewed plans for ground forces to enter Rafah.

“I appreciate President Biden’s support for Israel since the beginning of the war,” Netanyahu told ABC. “I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but put yourself in Israel’s shoes.”

Sunday’s discussion between Biden and Netanyahu primarily focused on ongoing negotiations to secure a hostage deal with Hamas, according to a senior administration official.

A framework for the hostage deal is mostly in place with partners in the Middle East, the official said, though gaps remain in negotiations with Hamas. If an agreement is reached, it would reinstate a humanitarian pause to allow aid to flow into the Gaza Strip and hostages to leave the area.

Biden also discussed immediate efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance, including a shipment of American-procured flour that could feed about 1.4 million Palestinians for the next six months, according to the official, who noted there are still logistical challenges to its arrival.

Egypt and other Arab countries as well as European nations such as Germany have raised serious concern about an Israeli ground assault on Rafah. Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said people in the town “have absolutely no idea where to go.”

Netanyahu said on Fox News Sunday that “there’s plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to, and that’s where we’re going to direct them,” including with fliers, mobile phone calls, safe corridors.

In Sunday’s call, Biden reaffirmed the “shared goal to see Hamas defeated and to ensure the long-term security of Israel and its people,” while also calling for stepped-up humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians, the White House said in a statement.

Egypt said Sunday it opposes an Israeli military operation in Rafah, according to a Foreign Ministry statement. It didn’t mention a claim by Egyptian parliamentarian Mostafa Bakry on social media that Egypt had threatened to take the extraordinary step of suspending its 45-year-old peace treaty with Israel if it sends its troops into Rafah.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned of a “humanitarian disaster” and said she plans to visit Israel this week to discuss efforts toward a Gaza cease-fire and the release of Hamas-held hostages.

Hamas toll

Fighting between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, began on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostage. Israel’s retaliatory air and ground offensive has killed more than 28,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Netanyahu estimated on ABC that about 12,000 of the dead were Hamas fighters.

Netanyahu and his government insist that Israel must eliminate Hamas and free all hostages. Negotiations for their release are underway, but an agreement remains elusive. Egypt, a mediator in the talks, has warned Hamas that it must reach an accord within about two weeks or Israel will proceed with the Rafah invasion, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

Israel has repeatedly said that only military pressure will bring Hamas to the table with an offer Israel would be willing to consider.

“The more we deepen our operations, the closer we get to a realistic deal in order to return the hostages,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Sunday while touring an army base after the discovery of a new Hamas tunnel.

The tunnel, which Israel showed had passed under UNRWA’s main headquarters in Gaza and received its power from its offices, contained a variety of intelligence assets, according to the army. Discoveries throughout Gaza “demonstrate we have penetrated into Hamas’ most sensitive locations,” Gallant said.

Inside the headquarters, Israeli forces discovered rifles, ammunition, grenades and explosives as well as intelligence and documents, which the army said in its statement “confirmed the offices have, in fact, also been used by Hamas terrorists.”

UNRWA had no idea what was under its Gaza headquarters and hadn’t used the compound since it left on Oct. 1, Lazzarini said on X, formerly known as Twitter. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, rejected the claim.

“Mr. Philippe Lazzarini, it’s not that you didn’t know,” Erdan said on X, urging the leader’s resignation. “You didn’t want to know! You buried your head in the sand!”


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