Netanyahu spurns Biden plea to call off Rafah assault

Bassam Masoud, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams |

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says there is no option but to continue a Rafah assault.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says there is no option but to continue a Rafah assault.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has 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 militants 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 that storming Rafah would be a “mistake” and that Israel could achieve its military aims by other means.

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The White House told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu storming Rafah would be a “mistake”. (AP PHOTO)

US and Israeli officials will likely meet early next week in Washington to discuss Israel’s military operation in Rafah, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday, citing deep concern about reports of imminent famine in Gaza.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a trip to the Middle East in which 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.

Late on Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike on a major roundabout killed 30 people from groups that local clans had formed to secure the entry of aid trucks into Gaza City, Hamas media said. Hamas denounced the strike on groups protecting aid trucks as an effort to “spread chaos and security anarchy.”

At the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, an Israeli airstrike targeting a residential building with three floors killed at least 15 people, with some believed to be trapped under its rubble, Palestinian health officials said.

The Israel Defence Forces did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the airstrikes.

A Gazan mourner said the West supported Israel and was just air dropping food to “save their faces”. (EPA PHOTO)

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

The war was triggered when Hamas fighters crossed into Israel on a rampage on October 7, killing 1200 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 Gaza’s food shortages had already far surpassed famine levels, and Gazans would soon be dying of hunger at famine-scale rates without a ceasefire.

Israel, which initially let in aid only via two checkpoints on Gaza’s southern edge, denies blame for hunger in the enclave 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 international hunger monitor IPC says Gaza’s shortages had already far surpassed famine levels. (EPA PHOTO)

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 about 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 told Reuters that the new round in Qatar was expected to be “very tough”, accusing Israel of deliberate stalling.