US remains unconvinced by Israel’s plans for Rafah after second meeting

US participants in virtual summit ‘concern[ed] with various courses of action in Rafah,’ Washington says; sides discuss Iran hours before reported Israeli strike

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

A woman cooks outside her makeshift shelter at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 14, 2024 (AFP)
A woman cooks outside her makeshift shelter at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 14, 2024 (AFP)

WASHINGTON — Israel and the United States wrapped up their second virtual meeting on a potential IDF ground offensive in Rafah still at odds on Thursday, with the Biden administration unconvinced that Israel can safely evacuate and provide for the humanitarian needs of the more than one million Palestinians currently sheltering in the southernmost Gaza city.

The sides share the objective of seeing Hamas defeated in Rafah, but the “US participants expressed concerns with various courses of action in Rafah,” the White House said. The comments were nearly identical to the ones issued after the first virtual meeting on April 1.

According to the US readout, Israel agreed to take Washington’s concerns into account and to hold a follow-up meeting soon. No statement was issued by the Israeli side.

The gathering also held a discussion regarding Iran, following the early Sunday strike on Israel. Following indications of a reported Israeli attack Friday, US officials said they had been passed a heads up on Thursday on Israel’s plans.

The summit was led by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on the US side and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi on the Israeli side.

Washington has argued that a major military offensive in Rafah would put the Palestinians sheltering there at risk, wreak havoc on Gaza’s main humanitarian hub located in southern Gaza, and further isolate Israel internationally without actually boosting its security.

Instead, it is pushing for Israel to pursue more targeted operations against Hamas leaders in Rafah while coordinating with Cairo in order to secure the Egypt-Gaza border, creating an underground wall to prevent weapons smuggling and choke off the remaining terror elements in the area, a US official told The Times of Israel earlier Thursday.

Two Palestinian boys look at a huge crater following an overnight Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 18, 2024 (Photo by Mohammed Abed / AFP)

Israel argues that it cannot defeat Hamas without launching a major offensive in Rafah to dismantle the terror group’s remaining four battalions there. It says it will only launch the invasion after it evacuates the civilians in the city, ensures that they’ll be able to continue receiving humanitarian aid upon relocation and coordinates with Egypt, which borders Rafah and has expressed significant alarm over a potential operation.

While Israeli officials told their American counterparts in the first virtual meeting that they could fulfill each of these requirements within several weeks, Biden officials responded that it would actually take several months or more, according to reports.

The Biden administration’s Gaza humanitarian envoy David Satterfield last week warned that “displac[ing] those already displaced persons in their current state of hunger [and] lack of basic medical services without all appropriate measures being taken to provide suitable shelter in advance, to provide the medical care, the water, the feeding that they need right now in Rafah and can’t get it — if you move them yet again, we believe the circumstances will be disastrous.”

But Israel has shown no signs that it intends to shelve its plans for Rafah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this month that Israel had decided on a date for when it plans to launch the Rafah invasion.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told his US counterpart Lloyd Austin that no date had been decided and that one would be determined based on Israel meeting all three of the conditions it has laid out, the US official said.

Palestinians wait to offer a special morning prayer to start the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, outside a destroyed mosque in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on April 10, 2024. (AFP)

The virtual meeting began with a discussion regarding the recent Iranian strike on Israel, the White House said.

Sullivan reviewed “the collective efforts to further enhance Israel’s defense through advanced capabilities as well as cooperation with a broad coalition of military partners and briefed the Israeli side on new sanctions and other measures that began today, in coordination with Congress and G7 capitals.”

Hours after the meeting, Israel reportedly conducted a retaliatory attack inside Iran.

Bloomberg subsequently reported that Israel informed the US on Thursday that it was planning to launch the Saturday strike within the next 48 hours.

The news agency didn’t specify whether the notification came during the virtual meeting but the US readout noted that only a small group of officials participated in the Iran portion of the call before a larger group joined to discuss Rafah.

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