Biden: Israel shouldn’t press into Rafah without plan to protect civilians

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel should not conduct a military operation against the militant Hamas group in the densely populated Gaza border city of Rafah without a “credible and actionable” plan to protect civilians, U.S. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the White House said on Sunday.

It was the president’s strongest statement yet about the possible operation. Biden, who last week mentioned Israel’s military response in Gaza “Over the top,” also sought “urgent and specific” steps to strengthen humanitarian assistance. Israeli television channel Channel 13 said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.

Discussion about the potential for a ceasefire deal took up much of the call, a senior US government official said, and after weeks of diplomacy there is now “just about” a “framework ” present for a deal that could bring about its release. of the remaining hostages that Hamas is holding in exchange for the cessation of fighting.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to provide details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks has brought the group closer to accepting a deal.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’s Al-Aqsa television station previously quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any Rafah invasion would “blow up” the region. talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt had threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent to Rafah, where Egypt fears fighting could push Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula and could force the closure of Gaza’s main aid supply route. .

The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, which have been a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly half a century, came after Netanyahu said sending troops to Rafah was necessary to win the election. four-month war against Hamas. He claimed that Hamas has four battalions there.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, crammed into tent camps and UN-run shelters. Egypt fears a massive influx of Palestinian refugees who may never come back.

Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday that there is “plenty of space north of Rafah where they can go” after Israel’s offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would escort evacuees with “flyers, with cell phones and with safe corridors and other things .” But the offensive has led to widespread destructionwith little capacity to absorb people.

The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close US allies, took shape when aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza. About 80% of residents have fled their homes, the UN says a quarter of the population faces famine.

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the few avenues for delivery food and medical supplies. Forty-four trucks carrying aid entered Gaza on Sunday, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. Before the war, about 500 came in every day.

WHERE WOULD CITIZENS GO?

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned about this serious consequences as Israel enters Rafah.

A Palestinian injured in the Israeli bombardment lies in a hospital in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Saturday, February 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and serious tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X. Human Rights Watch said forced displacement is a war crime.

The White House, it has rushed weapons to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a ceasefire, has warned that a ground operation in Rafah would be a “disaster” for civilians.

Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the US-brokered Camp David Accords in the late 1970s. The agreement includes provisions for the deployment of troops on both sides of the heavily fortified border.

Egyptian officials fear that if the border is crossed, the army will be unable to stop a flow of people fleeing to the Sinai Peninsula.

According to the United Nations, Rafah, which normally has fewer than 300,000 people, is now host 1.4 million more and is “seriously overcrowded.”

Smoke and explosion after an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, seen from southern Israel, Sunday, February 11, 2024. The army is fighting Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war sparked by Hamas' attack on Israel on October 7.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Smoke and explosion after an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, seen from southern Israel, Sunday, February 11, 2024. The army is fighting Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war sparked by Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In Rafah, some displaced people packed their belongings again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings on a truck. “We don’t know where we can take him safely,” Fedaa said of their baby. “We have to move every month.”

Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, displaced from Nuseirat, said she hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee to Sinai “because we don’t want to leave.”

112 BODIES TO GAZA HOSPITALS IN ONE DAY

So far, Israel has ordered much of Gaza’s population to flee south, with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the territory.

Heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and Khan Younis. In Gaza City, remaining residents covered decomposing bodies in the streets or carried bodies to graves.

Gaza’s Ministry of Health said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the area had been taken to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The death toll stands at 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters, but says most of the dead were women and children.

People block a highway during a protest to demand the release of hostages taken to the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants during the Oct. 7 attack, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

People block a highway during a protest to demand the release of hostages taken to the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants during the Oct. 7 attack, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A protester holds up a Palestinian flag during a protest to demand a ceasefire and support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, near the headquarters of the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, February 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

A protester holds up a Palestinian flag during a protest to demand a ceasefire and support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, near the headquarters of the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, February 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

The war started with Hamas’ attack on southern Israel on October 7, when Palestinian militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped about 250. In November, more than 100 hostages were released during a week-long ceasefire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some remaining hostages have died.

Hamas has said it will not release more unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. The country has also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including high-ranking militants serving life sentences.

Netanyahu has rejected both demands and says Israel will fight until “total victory” and the return of all hostages.

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Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.

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Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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