US-Israel meeting on Rafah likely to happen in DC next week

US says weekend boost in Gaza aid a ‘good start,’ but Israel not off the hook yet

After wartime record numbers of trucks enter Strip on Sunday and Monday, Biden officials say they want such figures sustained for long-term; Lapid meets Blinken, Sullivan

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

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid make their way along a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 10, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Trucks carrying humanitarian aid make their way along a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 10, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The Biden administration on Monday welcomed the uptick in humanitarian assistance that entered Gaza over the weekend following a series of steps unveiled by Israel, but reiterated that it was reserving judgment until the amount of aid increases further and is sustained over a long period of time.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Israel’s facilitation of over 300 aid trucks into Gaza on Sunday was “progress” and a “good start,” and then clarified that Washington wants to see the number pass 350 in the coming days, before increasing further. Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which facilitates aid into Gaza, said it inspected another 419 trucks that were transferred into Gaza on Monday.

The number of trucks that entered Gaza on Sunday (304 according to the US; 322 according to Israel) was a daily record since the start of the war. Though Israel says it has never placed a limit on the amount it will allow into Gaza, the record was broken days after US President Joe Biden held a tense call on the matter with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The White House asked for the call following the IDF’s deadly April 1 strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy, with Biden reportedly threatening to pull support for Israel if it did not take significant steps to improve the progressively deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Hours after the call, Netanyahu convened a security cabinet meeting during which the top ministers voted to allow aid deliveries through Israel’s Ashdod Port and northern Gaza’s Erez Crossing. They also decided to increase the amount of aid entering each day through Jordan, along with the IDF’s establishment of a new deconfliction hub to better coordinate with humanitarian workers after over 200 have been killed in the war, according to the US.

Aid could begin flowing through Erez as soon as later this week, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Monday during a briefing.

The Erez Crossing at the Israeli border with Gaza, January 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

“While we welcome these initial steps, it’s crucial to recognize that much more needs to be done,” he added, noting that 100 percent of Gazans suffer from food insecurity. “We expect Israel to fully implement its commitments quickly, and we will be monitoring that implementation.”

Over 500 trucks entered Gaza each day before the war and US officials have spoken of their desire to mirror those numbers for sustained periods moving forward.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid was in Washington for meetings with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and other senior US officials.

Lapid told reporters after his meeting with Blinken that the two discussed the need for a solution in Gaza, particularly one that would see the remaining 133 hostages released.

He said a hostage deal was “doable. This is a difficult deal and a deal we might not like, but it’s doable – therefore, it needs to be made.”

“There are enough good people in the Israeli government – if need be, the opposition will give a security net to the government in order to do a hostage deal,” Lapid said.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaks to reporters after meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the US State Department on April 8, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Olivier Douliery/AFP)

He said Israel is worried about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the need to better protect civilians in the enclave.

Over 33,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war’s outbreak, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The figure has not been verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas fighters Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7 when Hamas-led terrorists slaughtered some 1,200 Israelis and took 253 hostages.

Lapid’s visit came days after top Israeli and US officials held a virtual meeting to discuss a potential mass IDF ground invasion in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Washington opposes the planned offensive, maintaining that it will lead to significant civilian harm, cut off aid routes and further damage Israel’s image on the international stage.

Israel argues that it cannot defeat Hamas without dismantling its remaining battalions in Rafah and that it will be able to evacuate the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians currently sheltering there before moving forward with the offensive.

Netanyahu said Monday that he had decided on a date for Israel to enter Rafah, though the premier several times in recent months announced his approval of operational plans for the city that went unimplemented.

Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive after they withdrew from Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, April 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Miller, the State Department spokesperson, said that Israel has not yet briefed the Biden administration on the date on which it plans to launch its Rafah offensive, but the White House’s Kirby said Israel has assured the US that it will not launch a major ground operation before it holds a follow-up, in-person meeting in Washington, likely next week.

“We don’t see any signs that such a major ground operation is imminent or that these troops [being withdrawn from Khan Younis] are being repositioned for that kind of ground operation,” Kirby said.

The US is seeking to convince Israel through the high-level meeting to pursue alternatives to a mass invasion, which would include more targeted strikes against Hamas’s leadership in addition to coordinating with Cairo in order to secure the Egypt-Gaza border from continued smuggling, thereby choking off Hamas’s remaining fighters.

During his briefing, Miller reiterated that the State Department has several investigations into alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza that remain open. However, he said Washington has yet to reach a conclusion on whether the IDF has violated international humanitarian law in its war against Hamas.

Addressing the alleged Israeli strike in Damascus last week that killed seven top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials, Miller said the US was still working to determine whether the site targeted was an Iranian consular facility.

He declined to say whether the US would condemn the strike if it were determined that a consulate building was indeed targeted, as Tehran claims.

Miller flatly denied reports that Iran informed the US that it would agree to hold off on responding to the strike if a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

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