White House warns Israel against ‘smashing into Rafah’

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US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has warned the Israeli government against “smashing into Rafah” as the Biden administration underlines its opposition to the planned assault on one of Gaza’s biggest cities.

The US was continuing to urge the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect civilians and find a path for a long-term peace, Sullivan said. But an assault on the southern Gaza city was not necessary in the effort to “crush Hamas”, he added.

“[Biden] believes there is a path to do that, and that path does not lie in smashing into Rafah, where there are 1.3mn people, in the absence of a credible plan to deal with the population there,” Sullivan said on Tuesday. “We have not seen a credible plan to protect those civilians.”

In an interview over the weekend, President Joe Biden suggested a military operation in Rafah, the last remaining population centre in southern Gaza unoccupied by Israeli forces, could be further strain Washington’s relations with the Jewish state.

But the president has so far stopped short of saying he would deny military assistance to its ally Israel and the US has not said what repercussions the Netanyahu government would face for ignoring Washington’s warnings on Rafah.

Sullivan also declined to speculate on whether the US would begin placing any conditions on the $3.8bn in annual lethal aid it provides to Israel.

Biden and Netanyahu have not spoken over the phone in a month, in what analysts say is a sign of the chilly atmosphere between the leaders. Minutes after his State of the Union speech to Congress last week, Biden was overheard telling a US senator in the chamber that he needed to have a “come to Jesus meeting” with Netanyahu.

Senior US and Israeli officials speak constantly, Sullivan said, adding that he hosted the Israeli ambassador to the US in his office earlier on Tuesday.

About 1.3mn people are sheltering in Rafah, a city near the Egyptian border that has been a refuge for Gazans fleeing the Israeli offensive elsewhere in the besieged strip. American and Arab officials worry that any Israeli operation in the city would escalate an already desperate humanitarian crisis, putting intense pressure on the Gaza-Egypt border.

More than 30,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza since Israel launched its offensive on the strip, according to local authorities. The offensive was a response to the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas that killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

The UN has warned of an imminent famine in Gaza unless more aid arrives in the enclave, where land routes to supply assistance have been shut. The US and other countries have begun limited airdrops of food and other assistance and announced plans to build a pier to receive shipments by sea.

Biden is under domestic political pressure over his response to Israel’s war against Hamas and the rising death toll in Gaza, with some members of his administration pressing him to take a more forceful approach with Netanyahu.

In Michigan, a crucial state the president is likely to need to win to hold on to the White House in November’s election, more than 100,000 people cast “uncommitted” protest ballots during a Democratic primary instead of voting for Biden — a sign of anger at White House support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

On Monday, eight US senators, including progressive Bernie Sanders of Vermont, sent Biden a letter urging him to stop arming Israel because they argue it is violating a US law on weapons transfers by restricting humanitarian aid deliveries.

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