Blinken warns major Rafah op risks global isolation, long-term security harm for Israel

Secretary issues warning as Netanyahu tells him IDF must eliminate Hamas in last stronghold; Blinken also says Israel will be stuck in Gaza for years unless it has ‘day after’ plan

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to media in Tel Aviv, before leaving Israel after a brief visit, March 22, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein, Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to media in Tel Aviv, before leaving Israel after a brief visit, March 22, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein, Pool Photo via AP)

After meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled down on the message he has expressed in recent days — that while Israel will happily work with the US on improving the humanitarian situation and evacuating civilians from Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, a military operation there is inevitable.

Blinken said he told Netanyahu in response, however, that a major ground offensive in Rafah was not the way to defeat Hamas. And he warned starkly that it would risk more civilian fatalities, undermine aid assistance, risk greater isolation for Israel and endanger Israel’s security and international standing.

In a video statement after meeting with Blinken, Netanyahu said, “I told him that I deeply appreciate the fact that for more than five months, we have stood together in the war against Hamas.”

“I told him that we recognize the need to evacuate the civilian population for the war zone and of course to take care of humanitarian needs, and we are working on that,” he continued.

“But I also told him that we don’t have a way to defeat Hamas without going into Rafah, and eliminating the remaining battalions there. And I told him that I hope that we will do it with America’s support, but if we need, we will do it alone,” he said. Israel says it has dismantled most of Hamas’s original 24 battalions, but the final four are deployed in Rafah, bolstered by gunmen who have fled south as the IDF moved through the Strip.

Blinken was in Israel on the last stop of his sixth diplomatic swing through the region since war erupted on October 7, amid tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over the management of the conflict.

He held one-on-one meetings with both Netanyahu and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz on Friday, along with the war cabinet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a video statement on March 22, 2024. (Screenshot)

Blinken told reporters after his meetings that the US shares Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas and ensuring long-term security, but that “a major military ground operation in Rafah is not the way to do it.”

“It risks killing more civilians. It risks wreaking greater havoc with the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardizing its long-term security and standing,” Blinken said on the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac just before boarding a plane to depart.

According to the Walla news site, in his meeting with Netanyahu and his war cabinet, Blinken also warned that if Israel does not come up with a plan for the “day after” Hamas, it will be stuck in Gaza for years.

“You don’t understand this,“ Blinken reportedly said, “and when you do, it might be too late.”

He said that if current trends continue, the only possible results are Hamas remaining in power or anarchy in Gaza.

The US has been pushing for a reformed Palestinian Authority to take over the governance of Gaza the day after the war, which Israel under the leadership of Netanyahu has rejected outright.

With both Netanyahu and Gantz, Blinken discussed ensuring that more aid flows into Gaza.

On Thursday, Blinken said a major military operation in Rafah would be “a mistake.” In a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo, he called the looming ground offensive “unnecessary,” adding “there is a better way to deal with the ongoing threat posed by Hamas.”

More than 1.3 million Palestinians are estimated to be sheltering in the Rafah area, after the IDF issued evacuation warnings from northern Gaza and other areas in the Strip amid its ground offensive against Hamas. Unable to leave the tiny Palestinian territory, many are living in makeshift tent camps or overflowing UN-run shelters.

Palestinians queue during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

Netanyahu has said the IDF will evacuate the civilians to areas north of Rafah before beginning the operation and has approved the military’s plans for the offensive.

The meetings came as Russia and China vetoed a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution that called for “an immediate and sustained ceasefire” as part of a deal to release hostages held by terror groups in Gaza.

Blinken said on Thursday he believed talks currently taking place in Qatar, which are focused on a six-week truce and the release of about 40 female, elderly and wounded hostages and hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners, could still forge an agreement.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2024. (Courtesy)

The US resolution had backed the ongoing talks brokered by the US, Egypt and Qatar.

The hostages — half of whom remain captive in Gaza — were taken during Hamas’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, mostly civilians.

In response, Israel launched a wide-scale air and ground campaign aiming to eliminate Hamas and return the hostages, which has come under mounting international rebuke as the death toll rises and a humanitarian crisis builds in the densely populated enclave.

US officials say the number of aid deliveries via land needs to increase fast and that aid needs to be sustained over a long period. Israel says it is not restricting aid.

“A hundred percent of the population of Gaza is experiencing severe levels of acute food insecurity. We cannot, we must not allow that to continue,” Blinken told a news conference late on Thursday.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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