Inside story'This isn't just us saying, No you can't do it'

US to pitch Israel on securing Egypt-Gaza border as alternative to ‘smashing into Rafah’

US officials tell ToI next week’s meeting with visiting Israeli delegation will be used to advance viable options other than massive ground offensive in packed south Gaza city

Jacob Magid

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

Displaced Palestinians walk next to the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, on February 16, 2024, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Hamas terror group. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Displaced Palestinians walk next to the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, on February 16, 2024, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Hamas terror group. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The US will present alternative plans for how Israel can continue pursuing Hamas without launching a major ground operation in Rafah during an upcoming meeting with a visiting Israeli delegation in Washington, two senior US officials told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“This isn’t just us saying, ‘No you can’t do it.’ We’re saying that we’re willing to work with you on viable alternatives that still help you achieve your objectives,” one of the senior US officials said, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan touched on this idea on Monday when he announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted a request from US President Joe Biden during their phone call earlier that day to send an inter-agency team to Washington “to hear US concerns about Israel’s current Rafah planning and to lay out an alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements in Rafah and secure the Egypt-Gaza border, without a major ground invasion.”

Elaborating on the alternative approach the Biden administration has in mind, a second senior US official said Washington envisions Israel focusing instead on preventing the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza through the Philadelphi Corridor.

The official avoided blaming the Egyptian government for the smuggling that was partially responsible for Hamas’s re-armament amid successive rounds of conflict with Israel over the past 15 years. However, they said reaching a new arrangement with Cairo and building the necessary infrastructure to cut off the smuggling route would be more critical to the dismantlement of Hamas than a major ground offensive in Rafah.

“If Israel smashes into Rafah with all the civilian casualties that doing so would entail, cooperation from Egypt on locking down the [Philadelphi] Corridor will be much more difficult,” the second senior official said.

Palestinians stand by the border fence with Egypt in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 24, 2024. (AFP)

The first official clarified that US opposition to a major Rafah ground invasion doesn’t mean it opposes more targeted operations against Hamas’s leadership in Rafah or elsewhere, and said that the alternative plans the Biden administration intends to present to the visiting Israeli delegation will focus on this goal as well.

The US also envisions Israel using the coming period to implement a massive humanitarian surge, the US official said, speaking two days after the publication of a UN-backed report warning that famine is imminent in northern Gaza.

The senior US official said this will require Israel to open additional ground routes within Gaza to deliver aid to the north, where some 300,000 Palestinians have been practically cut off from aid after bucking IDF directives to evacuate at the beginning of the war. Israel and Hamas are almost six months into a war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 massacre, when thousands of terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took 253 hostages during a murderous rampage across southern Israel.

Any sort of operation in Rafah — let alone the massive invasion that Washington opposes — will require a far more stable humanitarian situation in Gaza, the US official explained.

They noted that the southern Gaza city has become a humanitarian hub in recent months and that new storage and distribution mechanisms will have to be established in other areas.

Illustrative: Egyptian soldiers patrol on a road parallel to the Philadelphi Corridor, a buffer zone that separates Egypt from Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, March 19, 2007. ( Cris Bouroncle/AFP)

The number of aid trucks coming into Gaza from the yet-to-be-established maritime corridor from Cyprus along with other routes into the Strip will need to be significantly scaled up, to figures not seen since before the war when 500 trucks entered each day, the senior official said. “That’s not happening any time soon, especially not when we’re in the middle of an imminent famine.”

The US, only last week, dispatched a ship with supplies for the temporary pier it plans to build off the Gaza City coast in a project that could take up to two months.

The alternative plans the US wants to discuss with the visiting Israeli delegation will also include efforts to begin the reconstruction of Gaza and to build up a viable alternative to Hamas, the first senior US official said.

Both of these aspects are points of contention, given that the outline of a post-war Gaza plan Netanyahu presented to his cabinet last month does not envision Israel allowing reconstruction to begin until the enclave has been de-militarized and “de-radicalized.” Netanyahu has also sought to empower local clan leaders with no ties to the Palestinian Authority to replace Hamas in governing Gaza, though the idea has received a chilly reception from the US and international community, which wants a reformed PA to return to the Strip.

Both US officials clarified that the Biden administration is not ignoring the four remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah but argued that their strength and importance to the mission of defeating Hamas was being overblown by Netanyahu.

“We don’t want Hamas to have a safe haven there, but the current situation is not feasible,” the first US official said.

The officials credited Israel for taking steps over the past couple of weeks to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, but one of them said that the situation could deteriorate again if Jerusalem does not begin implementing a “non-scorched earth strategy for pursuing Hamas.”

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu’s office announced that the premier has tapped two of his most trusted aides, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, to lead the Israeli delegation to Washington. A representative from COGAT, the IDF unit responsible for coordinating aid in the Gaza Strip, will also be making the trip.

“The prime minister stressed that he is determined to operate in Rafah in order to eliminate for good the remaining Hamas battalions while offering humanitarian solutions to the civilian population,” the statement said.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said the meeting will likely take place early next week.

Separately, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will host Defense Minister Yoav Gallant next week for a bilateral meeting at the US Defense Department, an American defense official said.

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the IDF will enter Rafah and that he told Biden as much in their call on Monday.

From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)

“We have a disagreement with the Americans about the need to enter Rafah,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “Not about the need to eliminate Hamas — the need to enter Rafah. We do not see a way to eliminate Hamas militarily without destroying these remaining battalions. We are determined to do it. ”

Biden effectively ruled out any potential support for a major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah during his call with Netanyahu, Jake Sullivan revealed on Monday, hardening his position after the administration had indicated for months it could support an operation there under certain conditions.

“A major ground operation there would be a mistake. It would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza and further isolate Israel internationally,” Sullivan said.

For months, the US indicated that it could potentially support an offensive if — and only if — Israel presented a credible plan beforehand for how to protect the over one million civilians sheltering in the southern Gaza city.

The first senior US official speaking to The Times of Israel on Tuesday revealed that Washington for weeks had made clear privately to Jerusalem that it didn’t believe such a plan existed.

Netanyahu has said the IDF will evacuate the civilians to areas north of Rafah before beginning the operation and declared Friday that he had approved the military’s plans for the offensive.

Palestinians line up for a meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

“The key goals Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be done by other means,” Sullivan asserted.

Sullivan clarified that Biden again rejected during the call “the straw-man (argument) that raising questions about Rafah is the same as raising questions about defeating Hamas. That’s just nonsense. Our position is that Hamas should not be allowed a safe haven in Rafah or anywhere else.”

A potential Israeli operation in Rafah has been a point of contention in ties with the US for months. The southern Gaza city is just about the last part of the Strip where Israeli ground forces have not entered en masse, after starting in northern Gaza and making their way down the enclave.

Jerusalem says an offensive in Rafah is necessary to dismantle Hamas’s four battalions there, but it is also looking to gain control of the Philadelphi Corridor between Egypt and Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Strip after the war.

Regardless, no operation is seen to be imminent, given that Israel has withdrawn most of its reservists from Gaza, and thousands would likely need to be called up again before any major offensive in Rafah could begin. Netanyahu reportedly told security cabinet ministers on Friday that he never said the operation would take place during Ramadan, which ends on April 9.

Talk by Israeli leaders of a coming operation in Rafah also appears to be part of an effort to put pressure on Hamas to agree to the hostage deal currently being negotiated, or risk having its last stronghold dismantled by the IDF.

Sullivan laid out the three reasons why Biden is “deeply concerned” about a massive Israeli offensive in Rafah akin to the ones carried out thus far in other major Gaza cities.

He noted that over one million people are sheltering in Rafah after fleeing repeatedly from elsewhere in Gaza.

A girl carries a canvas bag filled with food aid in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“They have nowhere else to go. Gaza’s other major cities have largely been destroyed, and Israel has not presented us or the world with a plan for how or where they would safely move those civilians, let alone feed and house them and ensure access to basic things like sanitation,” Sullivan said.

Rafah is also the primary entry point for humanitarian assistance to Gaza from Egypt and Israel, Sullivan noted, lamenting that it would be shut down or severely hampered “at the moment when it is most sorely needed” if an IDF offensive moved forward.

“Third, Rafah is on the border with Egypt, which has voiced its deep alarm over a major military operation there and has even raised questions about its future relationship with Israel as a result of any impending military operation,” the US national security adviser said.

Sullivan went on to argue that Israel’s latest military operation against Hamas in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital highlights Washington’s concern that Jerusalem lacks a sustainable strategy for targeting the terror group.

Weapons found at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, March 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Israel cleared Shifa once. Hamas came back into Shifa, which raises questions about how to ensure a sustainable campaign against Hamas so that it cannot regenerate, cannot retake territory,” Sullivan said.

Washington has long accused Israel of failing to advance a viable alternative to Hamas rule, by rejecting efforts to promote local Palestinians linked to the Palestinian Authority with support from Arab allies to fill the vacuum created by the terror group’s initial dismantlement by Israel.

Various locations in northern Gaza have seen a resurgence of Hamas activity in recent weeks, with the IDF reportedly pleading with the political leadership to make more clear-cut, realistic decisions regarding the post-war management of Gaza or risk wasting the military’s gains.

“From our perspective, it is connecting Israel’s objective to a sustainable strategy. That is the final thing we need to focus on right now, rather than have Israel go smash into Rafah. That is what the president talked to the prime minister about today,” Sullivan said.

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