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No Alternative for Rafah Invasion, Netanyahu Says, as Rift With U.S. Grows

WorldMiddle EastNo Alternative for Rafah Invasion, Netanyahu Says, as Rift With U.S. Grows


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Tuesday brushed aside President Biden’s opposition to a planned ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, saying that his government would press ahead despite pleas for restraint from the United States and key allies.

Mr. Netanyahu made the remarks to Israeli lawmakers a day after speaking by phone with Mr. Biden, who reiterated his stance against an offensive into Rafah, arguing that it could be disastrous for the people there and that Israel had other ways of achieving its objective of defeating Hamas.

At the president’s request, Mr. Netanyahu agreed to send a team of Israeli officials to Washington to hear U.S. concerns and to discuss Rafah, but a day later he insisted there was no alternative. Sending troops into the city is necessary, Mr. Netanyahu said on Tuesday, to eliminate Hamas battalions in the city.

“I made it as clear as possible to the president that we are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

The Israeli leader acknowledged the dispute with the Biden administration and said that Israel was engaged “in a dual campaign,” one military and one diplomatic.

“The diplomatic fight gives us the time and the resources to reach the full results of the war,” he said.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Vedant Patel, said of Mr. Netanyahu’s comments, “we are just squarely in a different place and have a different viewpoint.” The administration believes there are “alternative approaches that would target the key elements of Hamas,” he said, and “would do so without a major ground operation in Rafah.”

Increasingly isolated abroad and unpopular at home, Mr. Netanyahu is trying to sustain American support while also holding together a fractious governing coalition with ultranationalist hard-liners who oppose any softening of Israel’s approach to Gaza. Despite his resolute language on Tuesday, whether he shows any flexibility may not be clear until U.S. and Israeli teams meet next week to discuss Rafah.

Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 31,000 people in the Gaza Strip, according to the territory’s health officials, and the prospect of a military incursion into Rafah, where more than a million civilians are sheltering, has raised alarms about more civilians being caught in the crossfire.

Fleeing from Israeli attacks has become a grim cycle for civilians in Gaza. Israeli evacuation orders have prompted more than a million people to move from one destination to another since October, each time packing belongings and seeking transport — vehicle, cart or on foot — to escape airstrikes and ground fighting between Israel and Hamas.

After following evacuation orders, civilians have often found themselves at new locations either engulfed in fighting, subject to airstrikes or without adequate food, water, shelter, sanitation and other essentials. Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said on Monday that Israel had not presented any plan for ensuring that people fleeing an offensive into Rafah would have anywhere safe to go.

“It would lead to more civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters, describing the argument the president made to Mr. Netanyahu.

A group of experts convened by the United Nations warned on Monday that food shortages were so severe that famine was “imminent” and that the enclave was on the verge of a “major acceleration of deaths and malnutrition.”

The United Nations human rights chief, Volker Türk, blamed Israel on Tuesday for what he said was the entirely preventable catastrophe of starvation unfolding in Gaza.

“The situation of hunger, starvation and famine is a result of Israel’s extensive restrictions on the entry and distribution of humanitarian aid and commercial goods, displacement of most of the population, as well as the destruction of crucial civilian infrastructure,” Mr. Türk said in a statement.

Israel has pushed back on criticism that it is restricting aid from entering Gaza, pointing to its support for several recent initiatives, including efforts to provide supplies by air and sea that aid groups say are far less efficient than road. Israel also accuses Hamas of diverting aid and of using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Amid renewed calls by the United Nations for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, diplomatic talks have continued this week in Doha, Qatar. David Barnea, the head of Israel’s foreign spy agency, Mossad, who serves as the country’s delegation head to the cease-fire negotiations, left the talks in Doha on Tuesday.

Israeli news media reported that other members of Israel’s negotiating team remained there, and a spokesman for Qatar’s foreign ministry, Majed al-Ansari, said on Tuesday that Qatar remained “cautiously optimistic” as “technical teams” continued to discuss details of a potential agreement.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is also returning to the region this week, his sixth trip since the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Speaking to reporters during a stop in the Philippines on Tuesday, Mr. Blinken said his discussions would include postwar plans for Gaza and the wider Middle East, including a potential agreement that would normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and lay the groundwork for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

He is planning stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There was no mention of a visit to Israel.

The United States has expressed increasing concern over civilian deaths in Gaza, but Mr. Netanyahu insisted on Tuesday that he and Mr. Biden remained on the same page about the main objectives of the war.

“We have a debate with the Americans over the need to enter Rafah, not over the need to eliminate Hamas, but the need to enter Rafah,” he told the lawmakers.

He said that “out of respect for the president,” he had agreed to send a team to Washington so that the U.S. officials could “present us with their ideas, especially on the humanitarian side.”

The Biden administration has repeatedly warned Israel against sending ground troops into Rafah without a plan for getting the Palestinians there out of harm’s way, providing them with basic services and allowing increased delivery of aid, much of which enters through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

In northern Gaza, fighting continued Tuesday around the territory’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa. Israel’s military said its troops were “continuing precise operations” in the sprawling complex. It said it had killed dozens of militants, though its account of the fighting could not be independently verified.

The Gazan Health Ministry has condemned the raid as a “crime against health institutions,” and humanitarian organizations have expressed alarm over the situation at the complex. The hospital, along with the surrounding area, had been sheltering 30,000 patients, medical workers and displaced civilians.

Israel has said that the hospital complex doubled as a secret Hamas military command center, calling it one of many examples of civilian facilities that Hamas uses to shield its activities. Hospital administrators have denied the assertion.

The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a social media post on Monday that the Israeli raid was “endangering health workers, patients and civilians.”

“Hospitals should never be battlegrounds,” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Nick Cumming-Bruce, Aaron Boxerman and Gabby Sobelman.



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