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Rafah assault will strengthen Hamas’ hand, says White House


Palestinians travel in an animal-drawn cart as they flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza Strip city on May 9, 2024.
Palestinians travel in an animal-drawn cart as they flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza Strip city on May 9, 2024.

The United States is again warning Israel against expanding its limited operation into an all-out assault on Rafah, this time not only for long-held humanitarian concerns but for strategic calculations.

“Our view is that Rafah operations, certainly any kind of major Rafah ground operation, would actually strengthen Hamas’ hands at the negotiating table, not Israel's,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Thursday.

Kirby said that Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader believed to be hiding in the network of tunnels in Gaza, would have “less incentive to want to come to the negotiating table” if there were massive new civilian casualties in Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Israeli forces to carry out a “limited operation” in eastern Rafah earlier this week after rejecting a proposed cease-fire deal that Hamas said it had agreed to. The deal would have provided a temporary pause in hostilities paired with the release of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.

On Thursday, cease-fire negotiations in Cairo between Israel and Hamas with intermediaries including Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. were put on hold, according to Egyptian state media.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Thursday that negotiators are still working to make changes to Hamas’ counterproposal, but finalizing the agreement's text was an “incredibly difficult” process.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Thursday that his country’s military “will continue to fight Hamas until its destruction.”

His comments came a day after President Joe Biden said the U.S. would not provide offensive weapons to Israel for use in Rafah, while also expressing a commitment to Israel’s defense.

Weapons shipment pause

The U.S. announced Wednesday it is pausing shipment of weapons consisting of 1,800 907-kilogram (2,000-pound) bombs and 1,700 226-kilogram (500-pound) bombs over concerns that Israel could use them in civilian-populated areas of Rafah as they have in other parts of Gaza.

U.S. officials have for weeks expressed opposition to Israel’s plans to carry out an offensive in Rafah, where more than half of the territory’s population has sought refuge from the fighting elsewhere. Israeli officials cited the need to conduct an operation there to defeat Hamas and secure the release of hostages held in Gaza.

Israel has now occupied the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing into Egypt. It’s an effort to send the signal that Hamas no longer has control over the territory, said Aaron David Miller, former U.S. negotiator for the Middle East who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

“And perhaps to position themselves for a more comprehensive operation,” he told VOA.

Whether the arms transfer pause will change Israel’s calculus on Rafah is “too soon to tell,” Kirby said. Further U.S. action toward Israel is “going to depend on what we see Israel do in Rafah.”

Kirby rejected proposals reportedly floated by Israel that would allow it to continue its operations in Rafah during the proposed cease-fire. The U.S. would only support a cease-fire that would provide “six weeks of calm in all of Gaza,” he said.

“Smashing into Rafah” would not advance the objective of Hamas’ sustainable and enduring defeat, Kirby said. The U.S. is prepared instead to secure the border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent weapons from coming into the Palestinian enclave.

The U.S. can also “help [Israel] target the leaders including Mr. Sinwar, which we are frankly doing with the Israelis on an ongoing basis,” Kirby said.

On further questioning, he would not confirm that the United States is helping Israel to identify specific targets but said the U.S. can help with “setting the conditions” for Israel to go after them.

Miller said an assassination attempt on Hamas leaders is unlikely to compel the militant group to move closer toward cease-fire.

“Sinwar wants to survive,” he said.

The White House has not responded to VOA’s question on whether the administration would support a cease-fire counteroffer from Hamas that allows its leaders to remain alive.

Palestinians sit to next to belongings as people flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza city, May 9, 2024.
Palestinians sit to next to belongings as people flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza city, May 9, 2024.

Humanitarian concerns

United Nations officials expressed concerns about humanitarian aid deliveries reaching Gaza, including fuel, amid the Israeli operations in the Rafah area.

Rafah is a key crossing used to bring in aid from Egypt, while a nearby crossing called Kerem Shalom allows for shipments to cross into southern Gaza from Israel.

The Israeli military said Wednesday it has reopened the Kerem Shalom crossing, but the United Nations said no humanitarian aid had yet entered the Palestinian territory as no one was present to receive it after workers left the area because of Israeli attacks near there.

The Kerem Shalom crossing was closed last weekend after a Hamas rocket attack killed four Israeli soldiers. Tuesday, an Israeli tank brigade seized the nearby Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, also forcing its closure.

UNRWA, the U.N.’s Palestinian aid agency, closed its doors in East Jerusalem Thursday, the agency said in a statement, after Israeli residents set fire twice to the perimeters of its headquarters.

There were no casualties, but armed men outside UNRWA’s compound chanted, “Burn down the United Nations.”

Protests outside the compound have become violent this week, according to the statement, with demonstrators throwing stones at U.N. staff and at buildings.

UNRWA called for the perpetrators of the attacks to be investigated and held responsible.

Around 80,000 people have fled Rafah since Monday when Israel intensified its operations in the southern Gaza city, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said Thursday.

The World Health Organization says about 1.2 million people are sheltering in Rafah, and more than half of them are children. Many have come from other parts of Gaza, fleeing in search of safety and shelter as Israel's campaign against Hamas left much of the Gaza Strip in ruins.

The Israel-Hamas war was triggered by the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and led to the capture of about 250 hostages, according to Israeli officials. About 100 of the hostages were freed in a weeklong truce in late November.

Israel's counteroffensive in Gaza has killed more than 34,900 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. The Israeli military says the death toll includes thousands of Hamas fighters it has killed.

United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.