US President Joe Biden told the Israeli prime minister that a military operation in Rafah should not take place without measures to ensure the safety of civilians, the White House said.
In a phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said Israel needs a “credible and actionable plan” to protect the city’s more than one million people.
Israel is facing mounting international warnings about its planned offensive.
Mr Netanyahu has insisted it will go ahead and a plan is being prepared.
The call between the two leaders comes days after Biden suggested that Israel’s military operations in Gaza were “overblown.”
It also follows a series of Israeli allies, international organizations and regional powers expressing growing concern over suggestions that Israeli forces might invade Rafah – which sits on the border with Egypt and is the only open entry point for humanitarian aid.
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said “more than half the population of Gaza is sheltering in the area”, while Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious consequences” if Rafah were stormed.
The United Nations has said there is no safe place for the 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering in the city at the far south of the Strip.
Many of the people are living in tents in refugee camps, having been forced to flee their homes elsewhere in Gaza at least once on orders from the Israeli army.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s Hamas leaders said there could be “tens of thousands” of casualties, warning that any operation would also undermine talks over a possible release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip.
Israel launched its operations in the Palestinian enclave after more than 1,200 people were killed in southern Israel on October 7 by Hamas gunmen, who also took about 240 people hostage.
On Sunday, the Hamas-led Health Ministry in Gaza said that another 112 Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli army in the past day, bringing the total death toll to more than 28,100 and more than 67,500 injured.
In their call on Sunday, the White House said Biden “reaffirmed his position that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and actionable plan to ensure the safety and support of the more than one million people sheltering there.”
He reiterated the shared goal of Israel and the US to see Hamas defeated and ensure Israel’s long-term security, while also calling for “urgent and specific steps” to increase humanitarian assistance to civilians trapped in Gaza .
Negotiators working on a deal to secure the release of the remaining hostages Hamas is holding in Gaza have made “real progress” in recent weeks, a senior White House official told Reuters.
The official said this deal was the main focus of the call between Israeli and US leaders, but they also told the news agency that there were still some significant gaps to be closed.
In an interview with American broadcaster ABC News broadcast on Sunday, the Israeli prime minister said that “victory is within reach” and that the Israeli army would “take the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah.”
He also said Israel would “provide safe passage” for civilians in the southern city.
Asked where to go, Netanyahu suggested there were “many” areas “we have cleared north of Rafah” and insisted officials were “working out a detailed plan.”
“Those who say that we should not enter Rafah under any circumstances are essentially saying: ‘Lose the war. Keep Hamas there,’” he added.
Aid agencies say it is not possible to evacuate everyone from the city.
UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick, who has just been to Gaza to assess the situation, told the BBC’s Barbara Plett Usher that the people in Rafah would have “nowhere to go” if Israeli forces launched their offensive.
“The safe areas that have been declared are no longer safe. And if these people have to move – where can they go? We really fear that the horrific nature of where we are can only get worse,” he said.
Other developments this weekend:
- At least six Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Rafah, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa
- On Saturday, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said its air force had killed two Hamas operatives in the southern city
- The IDF also said it had discovered a tunnel shaft near a school run by the Palestine Refugee Aid Agency (UNRWA), which led to an “underground terrorist tunnel beneath UNRWA headquarters.”
- UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini denied any knowledge of a Hamas tunnel near the agency’s offices — a building he said his staff vacated months ago
- A six-year-old girl who went missing in Gaza City last month was found dead along with several of her relatives and two paramedics – after appearing to come under fire from Israeli tanks
- The IDF said on Sunday that troops fighting in the southern town of Khan Younis had killed “approximately 100 terrorists”.
- Three patients died when Israeli forces prevented oxygen from reaching al-Amal hospital in Khan Younis, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.
The BBC is unable to independently verify many battlefield claims made during the course of the war.
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