President Biden said Monday that Israel should not proceed with a major ground offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah without a “credible plan” to protect the more than a million people sheltering there.
Mr Biden was speaking after meeting at the White House with King Abdullah II of Jordan, a key figure in the push for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. It was the first face-to-face conversation between the two leaders since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas.
“Many people there have been displaced – displaced multiple times, fleeing violence in the north, and now they are crammed into Rafah, exposed and vulnerable,” Biden said during an appearance with King Abdullah. “They need to be protected.”
The visit came as King Abdullah sought to shore up international support for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza that would permanently halt the fighting.
Mr Biden has rejected the idea of a general ceasefire and said Israel has the right to defend itself. But he has pushed for a pause in the fighting that could allow the release of hostages held by Hamas and for something more “sustainable.”
Much of Jordan’s population is ethnically Palestinian, putting the country – a close US ally that has a peace treaty with Israel – in a difficult position in dealing with the fallout from the war.
King Abdullah said an Israeli invasion of Rafah would “certainly cause a new humanitarian catastrophe.”
“The situation is already unbearable for more than a million people who have been pushed to Rafah since the start of the war,” King Abdullah said. “We cannot stand by and allow this to continue. We need a lasting ceasefire now. This war must end.”
Mr Biden strongly condemned the rising death toll in Gaza, where health officials say more than 28,000 people have been killed since the war began.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Mr. Biden said of the deaths. “Every innocent life in Gaza is a tragedy.”
While Mr. Biden’s criticism of the war has grown blunter in the four months since the Oct. 7 attack, the United States has given no indication that it plans major policy changes, such as placing conditions on military aid to Israel.
Asked Monday whether Israel would face any consequences for how it conducts its next military campaign, John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said he would not comment on “mortgages.”
He said the United States was working to influence the way Israel conducted its war.
“There have been times and there will continue to be times when we have the opportunity and have taken the opportunity to shape their thinking and help influence the way they have conducted some of these operations,” he said. “And that remains today.”
Both Mr Biden and King Abdullah said the conflict must end with a two-state solution.
“I say this as a long, lifelong supporter of Israel,” Mr. Biden said. “That is the only path that guarantees Israel’s long-term security.”
King Abdullah said that “this is the only solution that will guarantee peace and security for the Palestinians and Israelis, as well as for the entire region.”
Egypt and Qatar, acting as intermediaries between Israel and Hamas, have held talks to stop the fighting and free the hostages in Gaza. The Biden administration has been actively involved in these negotiations, working publicly and behind the scenes toward a ceasefire agreement.
On Monday, Mr. Biden said the United States is working on a hostage agreement with Israel and Hamas that could provide a break of at least six weeks that could “take time to build something more lasting.”
The CIA director, William J. Burns, was expected to travel to Cairo on Tuesday for talks about the hostages, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel publicly rejected a Hamas proposal last week, Israeli officials have indicated their government is still open to negotiations. The very fact that more talks will take place in Cairo this week is seen as a positive sign.