'Hamas claimed to accept offer, but that’s not what they did'

US signals backing for ‘limited op’ after IDF takes over Gazan side of Rafah crossing

State Department says legitimate for Israel to prevent Hamas from collecting revenue at border gate with Egypt, while urging quick reopening of crossing so aid deliveries continue

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

Illustrative: Displaced Palestinians flee Rafah with their belongings on May 7, 2024, a day after the IDF ordered civilians in the city to evacuate. (AFP)
Illustrative: Displaced Palestinians flee Rafah with their belongings on May 7, 2024, a day after the IDF ordered civilians in the city to evacuate. (AFP)

The Biden administration appeared to signal its initial approval of the operation launched by Israel early Tuesday morning to take over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

Spokespeople for the administration said the goals of the operation were legitimate, but warned that this assessment could change if the offensive expands in scope and leads to an extended hampering of aid shipments into Gaza.

“What we’ve been told by our Israeli counterparts is that this operation last night was limited, and designed to cut off from Hamas’s ability to smuggle weapons and funds into Gaza,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in a briefing.

“This does appear to be a limited operation so far, but it does to a great extent depend on what comes next,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a separate briefing.

US officials sought to distinguish between the actions Israel has so far taken and a potential more significant military operation, which they continue to oppose due to fears that the million-plus Palestinians sheltering in Rafah would be put at risk.

“We have made clear that we don’t want to see a major military operation. This does look like a prelude to a major military operation. In terms of the policy response, we’ll see what happens next before we make those determinations,” he added.

A picture taken on May 6, 2024, shows smoke billowing following bombardment east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)

“One of the things that Israel said — which is very much accurate — is that Hamas [still] controlled the Gaza side of Rafah crossing, and Hamas was continuing to collect revenue from that crossing being open,” the State Department spokesperson explained. “So it is a legitimate goal to try and deprive Hamas of money that they could use to continue to finance their terrorist activities.”

For months, Netanyahu has declared that Israeli troops would carry out an operation to root out the final Hamas strongholds in Rafah, regardless of whether an agreement was reached in the ongoing hostage talks. According to Israeli defense officials, four of Hamas’s six remaining battalions are in the city, along with members of the terror group’s leadership and a significant number of the hostages it abducted from Israel during its shock October 7 onslaught, which sparked the war in Gaza.

The IDF operation early Tuesday led to the closure of the Rafah Crossing — one of the main gates used to funnel aid into Gaza. The closure came as Israel’s nearby Kerem Shalom Crossing also remained shuttered after a Hamas rocket attack on Sunday killed four IDF soldiers and wounded others stationed nearby.

The White House said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised President Joe Biden during a call Monday that he would reopen Kerem Shalom, but that did not take place on Tuesday. Administration spokespeople said Israel committed to reopening Kerem Shalom on Wednesday and to reopening Rafah for fuel convoys that day as well.

“The closing of Kerem Shalom and Rafah set back the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The full extent depends on what happens next and whether they’re quickly reopened,” Miller said.

According to Miller, reopening Rafah to fuel deliveries was essential for the operation of desalinization plants, aid trucks and bakeries. He called for the crossing, which is also used by aid workers in Gaza and Palestinian civilians, to be opened for all aid deliveries, not just fuel.

Miller acknowledged the temporary pier for Gaza being built by the US military would soon be operational, but said Israel should not view the maritime route as a replacement for Kerem Shalom and Rafah. “Even when that pier is open, the amount of aid it can deliver a day — somewhere around 100 trucks — in no way can replace what needs to come into Gaza through these other gates.”

IDF troops on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

The State Department spokesperson was asked about footage apparently filmed by IDF soldiers showing tanks ramming into signs in Gaza, including one reading “I love Gaza” at the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing. Miller condemned the action, saying the US “clearly opposes the destruction of any civilian infrastructure if it does not constitute a legitimate military target.”

Miller differentiated between the operation at the Rafah Crossing, which he appeared to approve of, and the IDF’s announcement on Monday urging some 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from eastern neighborhoods of Gaza’s southernmost city.

“We don’t think the kind of military operation that would follow such an evacuation is one that we can support because of the dramatic impact it would have on the civilian population there and the ability to get humanitarian assistance in and delivered to those people,” he said.

Miller clarified that evacuating civilians ahead of a military operation is welcome in theory, but charged that Israel was taking the step without the proper mechanisms to care for the evacuees once they moved.

“Those people need to have somewhere to go and the places that they go to need to have sufficient food, sufficient water, sufficient housing, sufficient sanitation, and we have not yet seen a plan that would deliver that,” he said, arguing that Israel was failing to take into account that once some Palestinians flee to designated safe zones in Gaza, far more will follow after them.

An IDF tank crushing an “I love Gaza” sign at the Gazan side of the Rafah-Egypt border crossing. (X screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

‘Hamas claimed to accept offer, but that’s not what they did’

As for the ongoing hostage talks, Miller pushed back on the claim made by Hamas on Monday that it had accepted the truce proposal that was on the table.

Israel had agreed to what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as a “generous” hostage deal proposal late last month, Miller began. “That’s the offer that was on the table.”

“Hamas seemed to make clear in their public statements that they accepted that offer yesterday. That is not what they did. They responded with… a counterproposal, and we’re working through the details of that now,” he said, noting that CIA chief Bill Burns is in Cairo along with delegations from Israel, Hamas and Qatar.

This appeared to be the first time that one of the mediators publicly issued a clarification regarding Hamas’s Tuesday statement, after roughly 24 hours of failing to address the apparent discrepancy. Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson even went as far as to call Hamas’s response “positive.”

Earlier Tuesday, Kirby added to the confusion by saying that Hamas’s response “suggests that [the sides] should be able to close the remaining gaps.”

Miller noted that most media outlets reported Hamas’s statement that it had accepted the Qatari and Egyptian mediators’ hostage deal proposal at face value.

Protesters hold a banner reading ‘It’s either Rafah or the hostages: Choose life’ as they block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv during a demonstration calling for the release of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, May 2, 2024. (Dor Pazuelo/Flash90)

“I don’t blame the reporting. It’s what the [Hamas] statement said. But it’s not an accurate reflection of what happened… Hamas did not accept a ceasefire proposal. Hamas responded and in their response made several suggestions,” he added.

For his part, Kirby pushed back on the reported Israeli claims that Burns did not keep Israel in the loop over the weekend, as Qatari and Egyptian mediators appeared to discuss an alternative proposal with Hamas.

“We absolutely had sustained ongoing normal interactions, as we have throughout the beginning of this conflict, with our Israeli counterparts as the proposal was working through the process. Nobody was hiding any footballs from anybody, we were being open and transparent.”

Arab diplomat: PM allowing political considerations to mar talks

Also Tuesday, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel that Israel’s repeated refusal to send a negotiating team to parley with mediators was hampering efforts to secure a hostage deal.

The mediators had wanted Israel to dispatch a delegation to Cairo over the weekend when Burns was in town, as they geared up for Hamas’s official response to the latest proposal, the diplomat said. “They refused to send a delegation, and now they’re complaining about being out of the loop.”

Following Hamas’s Monday response, Israel did send a lower-level negotiating team to Cairo that arrived Tuesday, though officials in Jerusalem surmised that the terror group’s latest proposal had brought the parties back to square one.

The Arab diplomat said this past weekend was not the first time that Israel refused to send a negotiating team to meet with mediators in Cairo or Doha, which he said slowed the talks.

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)

While Israel has maintained that it only sends negotiators when Hamas is showing genuine interest in reaching a compromise, the Arab diplomat said Jerusalem’s policy has been “politically motivated.”

He declined to elaborate, but there has been speculation that Netanyahu’s refusal to dispatch negotiating teams could be due to pressure from far-right coalition partners who want him to take a tougher stance in the talks.

Other war cabinet ministers, including National Unity chairman Benny Gantz and his deputy Gadi Eisenkot, have argued that Israel should always be open hold talks while sticking to its core principles once the negotiating team is in the room.

Reuters cited a source familiar with the matter who claimed that Burns would travel to Israel on Wednesday to discuss the hostage talks with Netanyahu and other top officials.

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