US says it’s not abandoning Israel, asserts Rafah offensive would embolden Hamas

Administration spokespeople say Hamas has not shown any indication in talks that a major invasion would incentivize it to negotiate, because it doesn’t care about civilians

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

US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One as he departs Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One as he departs Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The US administration on Thursday forcefully rejected claims that President Joe Biden’s threat to withhold offensive weapons from the Israel Defense Forces if it launches a major offensive in Rafah had emboldened Hamas to reject compromises in the ongoing hostage negotiations.

“Any kind of major Rafah ground operation would actually strengthen Hamas’s hands at the negotiating table, not Israel’s. That’s our view,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby argued at a briefing with reporters in which he sought to further contextualize Biden’s Wednesday night threat in a CNN interview. Amid widespread criticism of the warning in both Israel and the US, Kirby insisted the position did not amount to an abandonment of the Jewish state.

“If I’m [Hamas’s Gaza leader] Mr. [Yahya] Sinwar, and I’m sitting down in my tunnel… and I’m seeing innocent people falling victim to major significant combat operations in Rafah, then I have less of an incentive to want to come to the negotiating table,” the White House spokesperson said.

Israel has said Hamas is seeking to prevent a military operation in Rafah not because the terror group cares about the potential civilian cost, but rather because a full-scale invasion threatens to dismantle Hamas’s last major stronghold in Gaza, where four of its battalions remain standing.

Biden administration spokespeople did not address this particular framing, but repeatedly rejected the claim that taking a major Rafah operation off the table would strip Israel of its leverage against Hamas in the talks to free the remaining 132 hostages.

“We actually think that a Rafah operation would weaken Israel’s position both in these talks and writ large,” US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a subsequent briefing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Left) at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, May 5, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO) and Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar speaks during a rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, in Gaza City, April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

“A major military operation in Rafah would further weaken Israel’s standing in the world, further create distance from its partners in the region who actually share Israel’s goal of seeing Hamas defeated and want to see Hamas replaced with a different governance structure in Gaza.

“If you just look at Hamas’s track record, they’ve never cared about Palestinian civilian lives. If they did, they would not have launched these attacks in the first place, which they knew would produce a response. They wouldn’t hide behind civilians, and they would have agreed to a ceasefire long ago, so I just don’t think that that argument holds any water,” Miller continued.

“It is our assessment based on actually being in the middle of these talks and seeing… what Hamas is actually demanding.”

Those negotiations did not appear poised for an immediate breakthrough, as the Israeli negotiating team departed Cairo on Thursday night, reportedly after handing a document to the mediators listing Jerusalem’s specific concerns regarding the amended hostage deal proposal that Hamas submitted on Monday. CIA chief Bill Burns and Hamas representatives also left Cairo for Washington and Doha respectively.

Why now?

For their part, administration spokespeople indicated that Biden took the far-reaching step of threatening to withhold aid from Israel at this stage in the war because the US now feels that Hamas has been significantly depleted.

“We believe that [Israel has] put an enormous amount of pressure on Hamas and that there are better ways to go after what is left of Hamas in Rafah than a major ground operation,” Kirby said.

“Early on in the conflict, Hamas didn’t feel and hadn’t suffered the kinds of pressure and the kinds of casualties that they have suffered now,” he argued.

White House national security communications adviser John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“[Israel has] eliminated a lot of the leaders through the fighting that they have conducted over the last several months. They have decimated the ranks of many of their units. The picture of Hamas today is not what it was six months ago,” Kirby continued.

Miller added that Hamas’s “ability to launch the kind of attacks that they did on October 7 is significantly degraded if not completely eliminated… Their weapons production factories underground have been eliminated. Most of their battalion leadership in the north and in central Gaza has been eliminated.

“That’s one thing that is different now versus then. But the other thing that’s different is… the experience of those few months… when Israel did take additional steps to minimize civilian harm, we still [saw] results where far too many civilians [were killed],” the US State Department spokesperson said.

Kirby noted that the decision by Biden to issue the threat also had to do with the “preps for a major operation in Rafah and certainly rhetoric around that” coming out of Israel.

Israel still getting ‘vast majority’ of US military aid

The White House spokesperson went on to reject the notion that Biden was “walking away from Israel.”

“The argument… flies in the face of the facts,” Kirby said.

“This is a president who visited Israel within days of the October 7 attacks. This is a president who rushed additional military aircraft to Israel and provided expertise from our own military to go over there to help them as they thought through their planning and their operation… This is a president who put American fighter pilots in the sky to help shoot down more than 300 missiles and drones fired by Iran in mid-April,” he said.

A crowd of over a thousand people gathers in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square to hear testimonies from Holocaust survivors and hostage families on May 5, 2024, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Courtesy of Hostages and Missing Families Forum/Paula Patimer)

“Everybody keeps talking about pausing weapons shipments. Weapons shipments are still going to Israel. They’re still getting the vast, vast majority of everything that they need to defend themselves,” he added, reiterating that the entirety of the $14 billion in Israel aid passed by Congress last month will be spent on weapons for the IDF.

Kirby did, however, try and elaborate on the warning Biden made the night before when the president said, “I’ve made it clear to Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] and the war cabinet: They’re not going to get our support if they go [into] these population centers.”

If Israel launches a major ground offensive in Rafah, the US “will not provide certain categories of weapons to support such an operation,” Kirby said. “He does not want certain categories of American weapons used in a particular type of operation in a particular place.”

The administration spokespeople insisted that Biden’s warning should not have come as a surprise to Israel.

“The president and his team have been clear for several weeks that we do not support a major ground operation in Rafah where more than one million people are sheltering with nowhere safe to go,” Kirby said, noting that this message was conveyed publicly and privately to Netanyahu. “The Israeli government has understood this for some time now.”

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip carry their belongings as they await transportation following a call to evacuate by the Israeli army on May 6, 2024. (AFP)

Elaborating on the alternatives

The White House spokesperson said that “smashing into Rafah” — as the US has said it fears Israel wants to do — “will not advance the objective” of “a sustainable, enduring defeat of Hamas,” which both Israel and the US share.

Accordingly, the US will continue working with Israel to develop alternative approaches to a major military offensive in Rafah, Kirby said.

These alternatives include bolstering the border between Egypt and Gaza so that it cannot be used for smuggling weapons to Hamas, he continued.

The operation that Israel launched earlier this week to take over the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing is the type of alternative that US officials have been proposing to their Israeli counterparts in recent months, Kirby said, while clarifying that Washington is still monitoring the operation to ensure that it remains limited to the crossing.

Another alternative to a major Rafah offensive would be more targeted operations against Hamas’s leadership, which the White House spokesperson said the US has been helping Israel conduct to date.

The US is also encouraging Israel to advance an “alternative governance structure to Hamas” so that the terror group does not remain in control of Gaza after the war, Kirby said.

Finally, the US is working with Israel to create “safe spaces with shelter, sanitation, food, water, medical facilities, medical supplies and medical personnel [where] the people who are currently in Rafah can go,” he added.

People walk by photographs of Israelis still held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza. May 5, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)


Biden’s Thursday CNN interview marked his toughest public comments yet on a potential Israeli offensive in Rafah.

The remarks amounted to a threat by Biden to make permanent the hold his administration placed last week on a transfer of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs to Israel over concerns that the IDF could use them in densely populated Rafah, as it has in other parts of Gaza.

Asked specifically whether 2,000-pound American-made bombs have “been used to kill civilians in Gaza” earlier in the war, Biden said they had.

“It’s just wrong. We’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells,” Biden asserted.

He clarified that the US will continue supplying Iron Dome missile interceptors and other defensive weapons to ensure that Israel can respond to attacks from adversaries across the region, such as last month’s massive missile and drone barrage from Iran.

Netanyahu avoided mentioning Biden in a pair of Thursday statements referencing the interview.

But he twice vowed that if Israel “has to stand alone, we will stand alone.”

Displaced Palestinians, who left with their belongings from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following an evacuation order by the Israeli army, arrive in Khan Younis on May 6, 2024. (AFP)

“During the War of Independence 76 years ago, we were few against many,” he said in a video statement. “We had no weapons, there was an arms embargo on Israel. But with the strength of the soul, the bravery and the unity within us — we won.”

“Today we are much stronger,” Netanyahu continued. “We are determined and we are united to defeat our enemy and those who seek to destroy us.

“I’ve already said that if we have to, we will fight tooth and nail. But we will have much more than nails,” the premier asserted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 9, 2024 (GPO screenshot)

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said later Thursday that the military has enough munitions for the missions it has planned in Gaza, suggesting that Biden’s threat would not necessarily have a practical impact on the war.

“The IDF has armaments for the missions it is planning, and also for the missions in Rafah. We have what we need,” he said.

The IDF’s operation in Rafah has been limited to just the eastern outskirts of the city, and not the entire city where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering.

IDF troops operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image released May 8, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The US has so far provided security assistance to the State of Israel and the IDF in an unprecedented manner during the war,” Hagari said.

Highlighting the coordination between the militaries, he said IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks with US CENTCOM chief Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla every day.

“Even when there are disagreements between us, we resolve them behind closed doors,” Hagari said. “Israel has security interests, but we are also aware of the interests of the US, and that’s how we will continue to act.”

Most Popular
read more: