February 11, 2024 - 2:31 pm
Updated February 11, 2024 - 4:09 pm
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israel should not conduct a military operation against the Hamas terrorist group in the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians, President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, the White House said.
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” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas terrorists 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 terrorists 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 terrorist 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 terrorists. He asserted that Hamas terrorists has four battalions there.
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 war began on Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 in southern Israel. Over 100 hostages were released in November during a weeklong cease-fire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some remaining hostages have died.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza 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.
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 terrorists serving life sentences.
Netanyahu has ruled out both demands, saying Israel will fight on until “total victory” and the return of all hostages.