Home International Netanyahu spurns Biden plea to call off Rafah assault

Netanyahu spurns Biden plea to call off Rafah assault


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spurned a plea from US President Joe Biden to call off a planned ground assault of Rafah, the last refuge in Gaza for more than a million displaced people, where Israel believes Hamas fighters are holed up.

Palestinians gather to receive free food as Gaza residents face crisis levels of hunger, during the holy month of Ramadaan, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, March 19, 2024. Picture, Mahmoud Issa

By Bassam Masoud, Nidal Al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

RAFAH, Gaza Strip/CAIRO/JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spurned a plea from Joe Biden to call off a planned ground assault of Rafah, the last refuge in Gaza for more than a million displaced people, where Israel believes Hamas fighters are holed up.

Netanyahu told lawmakers on Tuesday he had made it “supremely clear” to the US president “that we are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there’s no way to do that except by going in on the ground”.

The two leaders spoke by phone on Monday. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington believed a ground assault on Rafah would be a “mistake” and that Israel could achieve its military aims by other means.

Washington has launched a new diplomatic push for a ceasefire in the nearly six-month-old war to free hostages and bring in food aid to stave off famine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a trip to the Middle East, where he would meet senior leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to “discuss the right architecture for a lasting peace”. Unusually, Blinken made no mention of a stop in Israel itself, and the Israeli foreign ministry said it had received no notification to prepare for one.

In Rafah, dazed survivors walked through the ruins of a home on Tuesday morning, one of several buildings hit in overnight Israeli air strikes that killed 14 people in the city, where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been pushed against the southern border fence with Egypt.

At a nearby hospital morgue, relatives wailed beside corpses laid out on the cobbles. A woman peeled back a tiny bloodstained shroud to reveal the face of a small boy, rocking him back and forth in her arms.

“There’s US support, European support and support of the whole world for Israel, they support them with weapons and planes,” said one of the mourners, Ibrahim Hasouna. “They mock us and send four or five air-drops (of aid) just to save their faces.”

The war was triggered when Hamas fighters crossed into Israel on a rampage on October 7, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Nearly 32,000 people have been confirmed killed in Israel’s retaliatory onslaught, according to Palestinian health officials, with thousands more feared lost under the rubble.

The international hunger monitor IPC, relied on by the United Nations, said on Monday that Gaza’s food shortages had already far surpassed famine levels, and Gazans would soon be dying of hunger at famine-scale rates without a truce.

Israel, which initially let in aid only through two checkpoints on Gaza’s southern edge, denies blame for Gaza’s hunger and says it is already opening new routes by land, sea and air.

It says the UN and other aid agencies should do more to bring in food and distribute it. The UN says that is impossible without better access and security, both of which it says are Israel’s responsibility.

“The extent of Israel’s continued restrictions on entry of aid into Gaza, together with the manner in which it continues to conduct hostilities, may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war, which is a war crime,” said UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence.


Ceasefire talks are resuming this week in Qatar after Israel rejected a Hamas counter-proposal last week. An Israeli delegation headed by the country’s spy chief travelled to Qatar on Monday, although an Israeli official said Israel believed any agreement would take at least two weeks to nail down.

Both sides have been discussing a six-week truce during which around 40 Israeli hostages would be freed in return for hundreds of Palestinian detainees and aid would be rushed into the Gaza Strip.

But they have yet to narrow differences over what would follow the truce, with Israel saying it will negotiate only for a temporary pause in fighting, and Hamas saying it will not release hostages without a wider plan to end the war.

A Palestinian official close to the mediation talks said the new round in Qatar was expected to be “very tough,” accusing Israel of deliberately stalling.

“Israel’s crimes on the ground complicate things and Netanyahu is playing the time game,” the official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

Hamas said a senior police commander was killed in the Jabalia district of northern Gaza, along with his wife and children, in overnight air strikes, the second senior police official killed in two days after another was killed in an Israeli raid on Gaza City’s Al Shifa hospital.

Civilian suffering in Gaza has opened a rift between Netanyahu’s government and Israel’s closest ally Washington under Biden. Last week, Chuck Schumer, leader of Biden’s Democratic Party in the Senate and the highest ranking Jewish elected official in the United States, called on Israelis to replace Netanyahu, who, he said, was wrecking Israel’s international standing.

Israel says it will wage war in Gaza until Hamas is annihilated, and that its strikes in recent weeks are hitting the Islamist movement’s leaders. White House adviser Sullivan confirmed overnight that Israel had killed Marwan Issa, the deputy commander of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, in a strike last week. Hamas has not confirmed he was killed.

In Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, Shaban Abdel-Raouf, a father of five, hoped the Qatari-hosted talks between Israel and Hamas would finally yield a truce.

“We are looking forward to the good news from Qatar. Will it happen this time? Will they seal a deal? Over two million people in Gaza are praying they do,” Abdel-Raouf told Reuters via a messaging app.


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