US says Israel agreed to take concerns over Rafah op into account at virtual meeting

White House says Israel sides will hold follow-up sit-down in person, after PM cancelled initial date in protest of UN Security Council resolution

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

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)
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)

Top Israeli and US officials held a virtual meeting Monday to discuss a potential Israeli offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Israel agreed to take into account US concerns regarding a massive Rafah invasion and also agreed to hold follow-up conversations on the matter, the White House said in a readout issued Monday afternoon.

The follow-up meeting will be held in person as early as next week, the White House added.

The sides “agreed that they share the objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah” during the two-hour meeting, the US readout said.

Monday’s meeting was led by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on the US side and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer along with National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi on the Israeli side.

It was supposed to have been held in person last week but was delayed after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to send his top aides to Washington in protest of the US decision to allow the passing of a UN Security Council resolution that called for a temporary ceasefire and hostage release without explicitly conditioning the former on the latter.

Palestinians inspect the damage of residential buildings after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Israel argues that an operation in Rafah is essential, as it cannot win the war without dismantling Hamas’s remaining battalions. Moreover, it says it will evacuate the over one million Palestinians sheltering in the southern Gaza city before it commences the major offensive.

The US maintains that such an incursion will not advance Israel’s war aims because it will lead to even more civilian casualties, cut off the delivery of humanitarian aid that is hubbed in Rafah, further isolate Israel internationally and harm Israel’s long-term security. Moreover, US officials have told The Times of Israel that Washington doesn’t view Israel’s aim of evacuating that many Palestinians as realistic, arguing that there is nowhere left in Gaza to which civilians can safely evacuate and shelter.

“We know that there are Hamas operators in Rafah, but if they are going to move forward with military operations, we have to have this conversation,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in response to a question on the matter during a press briefing.

She said the US believes that there are alternatives to the mass ground invasion that Israel is seeking to launch and that other options would be presented at Monday’s meeting.

Two senior US officials told The Times of Israel last month that Washington envisions Israel focusing instead on securing the Egypt-Gaza border, preventing the smuggling of weapons that have allowed Hamas to re-arm between wars with Israel.

Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the in-person meeting was branded by the White House as a “perplexing” overreaction, given that the US maintains that the Security Council resolution is consistent with its belief that a ceasefire can only come through a hostage deal.

Two days after the cancellation, Israel asked the White House to reschedule a high-level meeting on military plans for Rafah, officials said, in an apparent bid to ease tensions between the two allies.

The war began on October 7, when 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists invaded southern Israel and slaughtered 1,200 people, also abducting 253 to Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claims that more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the war, but the number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians. The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 terrorists in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7. The IDF has lost 256 soldiers fighting in Gaza.

Israel has been facing increasing international pressure for a ceasefire but insists that the war will not end until Hamas is fully dismantled.

It is also believed that Hamas leadership remains in the southern area of the Gaza Strip along with at least some of the 130 hostages that are still being held in the territory. Hamas released 105 of the hostages during a week-long truce in November and four before that. The IDF also rescued three hostages during the war.

Of the remaining hostages, the IDF has confirmed that at least 34 were killed either on October 7 or during their subsequent captivity.

Most Popular
read more: