RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel should not conduct a military operation against the Hamas militant group in the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians, U.S. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, the White House said.
It was the most forceful language yet from the president on the possible operation. Biden, who last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top,” also sought “urgent and specific” steps to strengthen humanitarian aid. Israel’s Channel 13 television said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.
Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework pretty much is now in place” for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a halt to fighting.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain,” but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.
Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent into Rafah, where Egypt fears fighting could push Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula and force the closure of Gaza's main aid supply route.
The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century, came after Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against Hamas. He asserted that Hamas has four battalions there.
Over half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and they are packed into tent camps and U.N.-run shelters. Egypt fears a mass influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.
Netanyahu told “Fox News Sunday” that there’s “plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to” after Israel’s offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees with “flyers, with cellphones and with safe corridors and other things.”
The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close U.S. allies, took shape as aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza. Around 80% of residents have fled their homes, and the U.N. says a quarter of the population faces starvation.
A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering food and medical supplies. Forty-four trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. About 500 entered daily before the war.
WHERE WOULD CIVILIANS 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 of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah.
“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave 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, which has rushed arms to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a cease-fire, has warned that a Rafah ground operation would be a “disaster” for civilians.
Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the Camp David Accords, brokered by the U.S., in the late 1970s. The agreement includes provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the heavily fortified border.
Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the military would be unable to stop a tide of people fleeing into the Sinai Peninsula.
The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more and is “severely overcrowded.”
Inside Rafah, some displaced people packed up again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings onto a truck. “We don’t know where we can safely take him,” Fedaa said of their baby. “Every month we have to move.”
Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, displaced from Nuseirat, said she hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee into the Sinai “because we do not want to leave.”
112 BODIES TAKEN TO GAZA HOSPITALS IN A DAY
Until now, Israel has ordered much of Gaza's population to flee south, with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the territory.
Israel’s offensive has caused widespread destruction, particularly in northern Gaza, and 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 Health Ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The death toll is 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters but says most of those killed were women and children.
The war began with Hamas' attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250. Over 100 hostages were released in November during a weeklong cease-fire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some remaining hostages have died.
Hamas has said it won't release any more unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. It has also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including senior militants serving life sentences.
Netanyahu has ruled out both demands, saying Israel will fight on until “total victory” and the return of all hostages.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.
This version corrects the statement by Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry to say she hopes Egypt does not open the border.
Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war
Najib Jobain And Samy Magdy, The Associated Press