Contradicting Netanyahu, Gallant told Austin no date set for Rafah op — source

Defense minister: Israel still finalizing evacuation plans; Sullivan says PM hasn’t briefed US on date for offensive, but suggests gap between PM’s public and private remarks

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

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington, March 26, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington, March 26, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told US counterpart Lloyd Austin during a call on Monday that Israel has not set a date for the launch of a major ground offensive in Rafah, contradicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

Gallant said Israel is still finalizing its plans to evacuate the roughly 1.5 million Palestinians currently sheltering in Gaza’s southernmost city after fleeing the fighting areas to the north, the source said on Tuesday, confirming reporting in Axios and Haaretz.

The call between the US and Israeli defense chiefs took place just hours after Netanyahu claimed in a public video statement that a date had been set for the Rafah operation.

“If he has a date, he hasn’t shared it with us,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday when asked if Jerusalem had briefed Washington on its plans.

The top Biden aide went on to note that Netanyahu “makes public statements [but] also talks to us in private about aspects of operations and their thinking with Rafah in some considerable detail,” indicating that there is often a discrepancy between the two.

Both sides’ readouts from the Gallant-Austin call said the Israeli defense minister updated his Israeli counterpart on the IDF’s latest maneuvering in Gaza, along with future planning.

Still from a video statement on the war in Gaza by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 8, 2024. (Screenshot, GPO)

Netanyahu has announced his authorization of IDF operational plans for Rafah at least four times over the past two months, but no offensive is anticipated in the immediate future, particularly after the IDF on Sunday withdrew entirely from Khan Younis, further shrinking its troop presence in Gaza. The IDF had roughly 30,000 troops in Gaza at the peak of the war and was down to several thousand even before the latest withdrawal — far fewer than the presence required to carry out a major ground operation in Rafah.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan praised Israel’s military withdrawal from Khan Younis, saying Tuesday that it “create[s] a greater opening for the movement of humanitarian goods around Gaza at a critical moment when there is a real humanitarian crisis there.”

“We welcome the opportunity to move more trucks in and around Gaza so that innocent civilians can get the food, water, medicine and other essentials that they need,” he said during a White House press conference.

Four Hamas battalions are believed to be stationed in Rafah along with over a million civilians sheltering there after fleeing fighting in other parts of the Strip. Rafah is also thought to be where Hamas leaders are hidden, possibly along with Israeli hostages.

Plans to mount a major offensive there have drawn intense international opposition, including from the US. A video conference last week between US and Israeli officials to discuss a potential IDF ground operation in Rafah was reportedly marked by tensions and accusations as Washington expressed deep skepticism over Israeli plans to operate in the city.

US officials believe Israel’s initial evacuation proposal for the million-plus noncombatants in the city is not implementable.

Displaced Palestinian children gather to receive food at a government school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 19, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Some analysts have speculated that the prime minister’s continuous pledges about an imminent Rafah operation are meant to hold Hamas’s feet to the fire in the ongoing hostage negotiations, or are aimed at appeasing Netanyahu’s right-wing base that is demanding a ground offensive. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir warned Monday that he would collapse the government if Netanyahu ends the war without an invasion of Rafah.

Washington opposes a major invasion in Rafah, arguing that Israel can achieve its war aims through other means. The Biden administration says a Rafah offensive will lead to significant civilian harm, cut off aid routes and further damage Israel’s image on the international stage.

The US is seeking to convince Israel through the high-level meeting to pursue alternatives to a mass invasion, which would include more targeted strikes against Hamas’s leadership in addition to coordinating with Cairo in order to secure the Egypt-Gaza border from continued smuggling, thereby choking off Hamas’s remaining fighters.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that the Biden administration continues to hold discussions with Israel regarding a potential Rafah operation.

“We’re talking to them about alternative and effective ways of solving the problems that need to be solved, but doing it in a way that does not endanger the innocent,” Blinken said, noting that a senior-level delegation of Israeli officials will be visiting Washington next week to discuss the matter further.

“We are committed to ensuring that Hamas cannot govern or dictate the future of Gaza or anything else for that matter, but how Israel conducts any further operations in Gaza matters a great deal,” he added.

Illustrative: Trucks lined up at the entrance to Ashdod Port during a protest against humanitarian aid deliveries entering the Gaza Strip, February 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that Israel has assured the US that it will not launch a major ground operation before it holds an in-person follow-up to last week’s virtual meeting of top officials.

“We don’t see any signs that such a major ground operation is imminent or that these troops [being withdrawn from Khan Younis] are being repositioned for that kind of ground operation,” Kirby said.

For his part, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron at a press conference with Blinken Tuesday said that world powers must plan for the possibility that ongoing hostage talks may not bear fruit and that Israel could move forward with its operation in Rafah.

Plan A is for the US, Qatar and Egypt to secure a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas for a temporary pause in the fighting that can be turned into a sustainable ceasefire, during which Hamas leaders are removed from Gaza and terror infrastructure is dismantled. “That is the way to have a political process that brings the war to an end,” Cameron said.

“We have to be aware that if it doesn’t work, we have to think about Plan B — what is it that humanitarian and other organizations can do to make sure that if there is a conflict in Rafah, that people can achieve safety — they can get food, water and medicine,” the top British diplomat said, noting that he would be discussing the matter in his meeting with Blinken.

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