Biden says Israel needs a “credible” plan to protect civilians before the attack on Rafah begins

US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not carry out a military operation against the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the densely populated border city of Rafah without a “credible and implementable” plan to protect civilians, the White House said.

This was the strongest language yet from the president on the potential operation. Biden, who last week described Israel’s military response in Gaza as “exaggerated,” sought “urgent and specific” steps to boost humanitarian aid. Israeli TV Channel 13 said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.

A senior US administration official said that discussing the possibility of reaching a ceasefire agreement occupied a large part of the call. After weeks of diplomatic efforts, the “framework” is “largely” ready to reach an agreement that could lead to the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a halt to the fighting.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, acknowledged “gaps” but declined to provide details. The official said that military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Yunis in recent weeks helped bring the movement closer to accepting the deal.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. The Al-Aqsa TV channel affiliated with the Hamas movement had previously quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

Tank fires a round.
An Israeli tank fired a shell near the country’s southern border with the Gaza Strip, on Sunday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said that Egypt would suspend its peace treaty with Israel if it sent troops to Rafah. Egypt fears that this move will push the Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula and lead to the closure of the main aid supply route to Gaza.

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

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled to Rafah to escape fighting elsewhere, and have been crowded into UN-run camps and shelters. Egypt fears the influx of large numbers of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Netanyahu said Fox News Sunday He said there was “a lot of space north of Rafah to go” after the Israeli offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees “with leaflets, mobile phones, safe passages and other things.” But the attack caused widespread destruction, with people unable to be accommodated.

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In Israel, Netanyahu faces dual pressures to achieve a ceasefire and defeat Hamas

As efforts continue to negotiate a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces competing pressures to reach an agreement and continue to relentlessly pursue Hamas.

The confrontation between Israel and Egypt, two close allies of the United States, took shape when aid groups warned that an attack on Rafah would worsen the disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza. About 80% of the population has fled their homes, and the United Nations says that a quarter of the population faces famine.

The ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only routes for delivering food and medical supplies. Wael Abu Omar, spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority, said that 44 aid trucks entered Gaza on Sunday. About 500 people entered every day before the war.

“Every month we have to move”

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries also warned of dire consequences if Israel entered Rafah.

“The Israeli attack on Rafah will lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and serious tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on the social networking site X, formerly known as Twitter. Human Rights Watch said that forced displacement is a war crime.

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

Barbed wire in the foreground displaced people in the background as they gathered around a tent and a clothesline.
Palestinians displaced from the shelter of the war between Israel and Hamas in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday. (Mohamed Salem/Reuters)

Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the Camp David Accords, which were brokered by the United States in the late 1970s. The agreement includes provisions regulating the deployment of forces on both sides of the heavily fortified border.

Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the army will not be able to stop a wave of people fleeing to the Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations says Rafah, normally inhabited by fewer than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more and is “extremely overcrowded.”

This animation contains satellite aerial images showing a sparsely populated city and the same city but densely populated.
A satellite image provided by Planet Labs PBC shows the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on October 13, 2023, left, and January 14. (Planet Labs BBC/AP)

Inside Rafah, some displaced people were packing their belongings again.

Raafat and Fida Abu Haloub, who had fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, loaded their belongings onto a truck. “We don’t know where we can take him safely,” Fidaa said of their child. “Every month we have to move.”

Umm Muhammad Al-Ghamri, a displaced woman from Nuseirat, said she hopes Egypt will not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee to Sinai “because we don’t want to leave.”

112 bodies were transferred to Gaza hospitals in one day

So far, Israel has ordered most Gazans to flee to the south, and evacuation orders cover two-thirds of the Strip.

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

The Gaza Ministry of Health said on Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the Strip had been transferred to hospitals during the past 24 hours. The death toll has reached 28,176 since the beginning of the war. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and fighters, but says that most of the dead were women and children.

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Arif Hussein, chief economist at the World Food Programme, told Rosemary Barton Live that “almost everyone” living in Gaza is going hungry, and that about a quarter of the population is “starving”.

The war began with a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, in which about 1,200 people were killed, most of them civilians, and 250 others were kidnapped, according to Israeli statistics. More than 100 hostages were released in November during a week-long ceasefire in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some of the remaining hostages died.

Hamas said it would not release any more hostages unless Israel stopped its attack and withdrew from Gaza. It also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants serving life sentences.

Netanyahu ruled out both demands, saying that Israel would continue fighting until “complete victory” and the return of all hostages.

(tags for translation)peace treaty

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