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Top US Officials Warn Israel's Gallant Against Invading Rafah

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, second from left, meets with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, March 26, 2024, in Washington.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, second from left, meets with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, March 26, 2024, in Washington.

Top Biden administration officials urged Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to abandon plans to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinian civilians seek safety, as U.S.-Israel tensions brew over Israel's conduct in its six-month-old war against Hamas.

In meetings Monday and Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself while reiterating opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned ground offensive to target Hamas in Gaza's southernmost city on the border with Egypt.

"Our goal [is] to help Israel find an alternative to a full-scale and perhaps premature military operation that could endanger the over 1 million civilians that are sheltering in Rafah," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Tuesday, briefing on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

A major ground operation in Rafah would further jeopardize the welfare of Palestinian civilians, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Monday. He added that Blinken underscored to Gallant that "alternatives exist" that would both better ensure Israel's security and protect Palestinian civilians.

Top US Officials Warn Israeli Defense Minister Against Invading Rafah
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Amid a looming famine in Gaza, Austin warned of the "humanitarian catastrophe" in the Palestinian enclave, describing civilian casualties as "far too high" and aid deliveries as "far too low." His remarks echoed Blinken's calls for Israel "to immediately surge and sustain" more aid.

The Netanyahu government has denied accusations by international aid agencies and the United Nations that Israel is blocking aid and provoking famine in Gaza as part of its strategy to root out Hamas.

Similar admonitions were likely being conveyed by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan. In a sign of potentially complicated talks, Sullivan's meeting with Gallant, originally scheduled for Monday, was extended an extra day.

"They believed it was important to continue the conversation," said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Sullivan told reporters last week that President Joe Biden himself had warned Netanyahu an invasion in Rafah would be a mistake and urged him to have a "coherent and sustainable strategy" to defeat Hamas.

'Don't do it'

Netanyahu insists that the goal of "total victory" against Hamas cannot be achieved without going into Rafah, where Israel says there are four Hamas battalions composed of thousands of fighters.

Initially, the Biden administration said they would not support a Rafah offensive without sufficient protection of civilians.

Now, they're telling Israel, "Don't do it," said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. negotiator in Middle East peace talks.

"It's not now a question of making sure that the population is somehow safeguarded," he told VOA. "They just don't want the Israelis to do it."

Despite the pressure piled on Gallant this week, the decision on Rafah would have to be taken by the Israeli War Cabinet, whose members in addition to Gallant include Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, former minister of defense and deputy prime minister, as well as two observers — opposition politician Gadi Eisenkot and Ron Dermer, Netanyahu's close adviser.

Gallant's meetings have been the main high-level consultation mechanism between the U.S. and its ally, as Netanyahu abruptly canceled plans for a visit by a separate Israeli delegation.

That was done in protest of Washington's abstention at the U.N. that allowed the adoption of a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Netanyahu accused the U.S. of shifting from its prior position of conditioning the cease-fire call on the release of hostages, which the administration denies.

More weapons

Gallant, a security hawk who supports a ground operation in Rafah, had aimed to use his Washington visit to ramp up the transfer of American weapons. In remarks ahead of his meeting with Austin, he said he wants to "ensure Israel's military edge and capabilities."

Israel needs U.S. arms not only for the campaign in Gaza but also to prepare for further escalation in the north of the country with Hezbollah in Lebanon, said Brian Finucane, senior adviser for the U.S. Program at the International Crisis Group. Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the two sides have exchanged fire through thousands of rocket and missile launches.

"The U.S. has real leverage here," Finucane told VOA. "The best-case scenario would be if the U.S. actually did use its abundant leverage, both unilaterally and multilaterally, to try to bring about a cease-fire."

While Biden has begun using his diplomatic leverage by abstaining at the U.N., he is unlikely to condition or restrict military aid to Israel as he aims to keep the conflict from spreading.

"The last thing he should want to do is to send an unmistakable signal to Hezbollah and Iran that we're not prepared to back the Israelis, if, in fact, there is an escalation in the Israeli northern border," said Miller.

The most fundamental goal for Biden right now, he said, is reaching a deal in the cease-fire negotiations in Qatar. Hamas says it will release hostages only as part of a deal that would end the war, while Israel says it will discuss only a temporary pause.

US arms for Israel

The U.S. has committed to provide Israel with nearly $4 billion a year in aid through 2028, most of it in the form of military assistance. Approximately $3.3 billion per year is given under the Foreign Military Financing program, funds that Israel must use to purchase U.S. military equipment and services.

Since the Gaza war began, the administration has quietly delivered more than 100 separate foreign military sales to Israel. The arms transfers were processed without public debate because the administration broke up the sales packages in amounts below the threshold that requires them to notify Congress, according to a defense official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive military matter.

Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, last month the White House released a National Security Memorandum requiring the U.S. secretary of state to "obtain credible and reliable written assurances" from foreign governments that U.S. weapons are used in accordance with international and humanitarian law.

Gallant delivered Israel's required written assurances ahead of the deadline on Sunday. Under the memorandum, the State Department has until early May to formally assess and report to Congress whether those assurances are "credible and reliable." Without it, Biden has the option of suspending further U.S. arms transfers.

So far, Biden has not indicated any willingness to do so. In his call with Netanyahu last week, the president "didn't make threats," Sullivan said. "Each of them recognizes that we are at a critical moment in this conflict."

Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.