US opposes any operation in Rafah that endangers civilians

Biden calls PM to reiterate opposition to Rafah op after IDF orders partial evacuation

Call also focuses on hostage talks, which were subsequently shaken up with Hamas announcement claiming to accept ceasefire proposal; Netanyahu agrees to reopen Kerem Shalom Crossing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)
US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

US President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to reiterate his opposition to a major Israeli military offensive in Rafah at a critical juncture in the hostage negotiations, and hours after the IDF began urging Palestinians to evacuate the eastern neighborhoods of Gaza’s southernmost city.

Biden “reiterated his clear position on Rafah,” a White House readout said, without elaborating.

The US has repeatedly expressed its opposition to a Rafah invasion without credible assurances from Israel that the million-plus Palestinians sheltering there would be protected. Israel claims it can safely evacuate and care for those civilians, but Washington has not been convinced.

White House National Security Council spokesperson said later Monday that the US would not support any ground operations in Rafah that would put civilians at risk. This appeared to be a hardening of the previously long-held position in Washington that specifically opposed a “major” offensive in the city.

The Biden administration is pushing alternatives to a Rafah invasion, including the bolstering of the Gaza border with Egypt and more targeted operations against Hamas’s leadership. But Netanyahu has turned a Rafah invasion into an essential, non-negotiable component of a “total victory” over the terror group.

The prime minister argues that the four operational Hamas battalions in the city must be dismantled in order to ensure the terror group can no longer threaten the country, though critics maintain that this strategy is an extension of one that has sought to remove the threat of Hamas solely through military means while blocking diplomatic efforts to establish a viable alternative to the terror group’s rule.

A picture taken on May 6, 2024, shows smoke billowing following bombardment east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Kirby said that, in his call with Netanyahu, Biden reiterated concerns about an invasion of Rafah and said he believes reaching a truce with Hamas is the best way to protect the lives of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

“We want to get these hostages out, we want to get a ceasefire in place for six weeks, we want to increase humanitarian assistance,” Kirby said, adding that reaching an agreement would be the “absolute best outcome.”

Hours after the IDF issued evacuation orders for eastern Rafah neighborhoods on Monday, it carried out a series of airstrikes in those areas and others in the southern Gaza city.

Kirby said the White House chose to hold Monday’s call with Netanyahu due to the critical point in time ahead of a potential hostage deal and Rafah invasion and also due to the Israeli decision to shutter its Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza after a Hamas rocket attack on Sunday killed four IDF troops at an adjacent military outpost.

The White House readout said that Netanyahu during the call agreed to reopen Kerem Shalom, which is one of the main crossings used to deliver humanitarian aid into the Strip. Kirby said that the US expects it to be reopened “very soon.”

He added that the call was “constructive” and lasted roughly 30 minutes.

Biden during the call “reaffirmed his message on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day,” the US readout said. “The two leaders discussed the shared commitment of Israel and the United States to remember the six million Jews who were systematically targeted and murdered in the Holocaust, one of the darkest chapters in human history and to forcefully act against antisemitism and all forms of hate-fueled violence.”

A helicopter lands in southern Israel after a number of soldiers were killed in a Hamas rocket attack on the Kerem Shalom area, May 5, 2024. (Magen David Adom)

A readout was not released by Netanyahu’s office, which does not issue such statements as regularly as the White House does.

The call was held shortly before Hamas issued a statement announcing that it had accepted a ceasefire proposal crafted by Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

The dramatic announcement was dampened by Netanyahu’s office, which issued a subsequent statement saying that the proposal was far from meeting Israel’s demands.

Anonymous Israeli officials told various news sites that the proposal Hamas accepted was not the one Israel had greenlit in earlier talks with the mediators.

Netanyahu’s office said the war cabinet agreed unanimously to move forward with operations in Rafah “in order to apply military pressure on Hamas, with the goal of securing progress toward freeing the hostages and the other war aims.”

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip carry their belongings as they leave following an evacuation order by the Israeli army on May 6, 2024. (AFP)

Still, Israel would dispatch a lower-level delegation to meet with American, Qatari and Egyptian mediators in order to try and salvage an agreement with Hamas, the premier’s office added.

For its part, Biden administration spokespeople said Monday afternoon that the US was still studying the Hamas response, declining to comment further and whether the ball that they said was previously in Hamas’s court had now been thrown to Israel’s.

The State Department and White House noted that CIA chief Bill Burns was in the region discussing the Hamas response with Qatari and Egyptian mediators. Burns was in Cairo on Friday before traveling to Doha on Saturday where has remained.

Reuters cited an unnamed US official who said Israel still plans to proceed with a 90-day plan to invade Rafah, which Washington is committed to stopping.

“Netanyahu and the war cabinet have not appeared to approach the latest phase of negotiations (with Hamas) in good faith,” the official told Reuters.

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