Israel briefed US on plan to evacuate Gazans from Rafah before offensive — officials

US officials say details shared by Israel didn’t change administration’s view that operation would put too many non-combatants at risk, add Israeli plan still not finalized

Israeli tanks near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 2, 2024. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Israeli tanks near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 2, 2024. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Israel this week briefed Biden administration officials on a plan to evacuate Palestinian civilians ahead of a potential operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah aimed at rooting out Hamas terrorists, according to US officials familiar with the talks.

The officials, who were not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity to speak about the sensitive exchange, said that the plan detailed by the Israelis did not change the US administration’s view that moving forward with an operation in Rafah would put too many innocent Palestinian civilians at risk.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to carry out a military operation in Rafah despite warnings from US President Joe Biden and other western officials that doing so would result in more civilian deaths and worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis.

The Biden administration has said that there could be consequences for Israel should it move forward with the operation without a credible plan to safeguard civilians.

Some 1.5 million Palestinians have sheltered in the southern Gaza city as the territory has been ravaged by the war that began on October 7 when Hamas terrorists attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostages.

The United Nations humanitarian aid agency on Friday said that hundreds of thousands of people would be “at imminent risk of death” if Israel moves forward with the Rafah offensive. The border city is a critical entry point for humanitarian aid and is filled with displaced Palestinians, many in densely packed tent camps.

The officials added that the evacuation plan that the Israelis briefed was not finalized and both sides agreed to keep discussing the matter.

This combination photo shows US President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo)

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday that no “comprehensive” plan for a potential Rafah operation has been revealed by the Israelis to the White House. The operation, however, has been discussed during recent calls between Biden and Netanyahu as well as during recent virtual talks with top Israeli and US national security officials.

“We want to make sure that those conversations continue because it is important to protect those Palestinian lives — those innocent lives,” Jean-Pierre said.

The revelation of Israel’s continued push to carry out a Rafah operation came as CIA director William Burns arrived Friday in Egypt, where negotiators are trying to seal a hostages-for-truce accord between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas is considering the latest proposal put forward by US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators, who are looking to avert the Rafah operation.

They have publicly pressed Hamas to accept the terms of the deal that would lead to a pause in fighting and an exchange of Israeli hostages taken captive on Oct. 7 and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

A Hamas delegation is due to arrive in Cairo on Saturday for further discussions on the offer.

Local volunteers of the World Central Kitchen cook meals to be distributed to needy Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 3, 2024. (AFP)

Israel, and its allies, have sought to increase pressure on Hamas in the hostage negotiations. Signaling that Israel continues to move forward with its planning for a Rafah operation could be a tactic to nudge the terror organization to finalize the deal.

Netanyahu said earlier this week that Israeli forces would enter Rafah, which Israel says is Hamas’s last stronghold, regardless of whether a deal is struck. His comments appeared to be meant to appease his far-right governing partners, and it was not clear whether they would have any bearing on any emerging deal with Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region, including Israel, this week and called the latest proposal “extraordinarily generous” and said “the time to act is now.”

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