White House expected to present alternatives to Rafah op
Israeli forces operating in the Gaza Strip, March 19, 2024. (Photo: IDF)

By Joshua Marks
March 20, 2024

The White House will present alternative plans designed to dissuade Jerusalem from carrying out a full-scale military operation in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah when an Israeli delegation visits Washington early next week, Axios reported on Tuesday.

According to U.S. and Israeli officials, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was surprised when U.S. President Joe Biden proposed the visit.

President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

“The fear was that the negotiations over the hostage deal could collapse and then the Israelis will just go ahead with a Rafah invasion, which would be a breaking point for the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” one official told Axios reporter Barak Ravid.

In the phone conversation, their first in more than a month, Biden told Netanyahu that he could not support a major military offensive in Rafah. Instead, the administration favors a limited operation aimed at high-value Hamas targets and securing the Gaza-Egypt border.

“I made it clear to the president in our conversation, in the clearest way, that we are determined to complete the elimination of these [Hamas] battalions in Rafah. And there is no way to do it, other than the entrance of ground forces,” Netanyahu said at Tuesday’s meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.

The final four Hamas battalions with some 3,000 gunmen are concentrated in Rafah. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that all of the Hamas battalions must be defeated for Israel to declare victory, which is essential to prevent the terrorist organization from regrouping and reestablishing itself to threaten Israel again.

Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes seen from Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Jan. 31, 2024. (Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Hamas leadership has vowed to repeat the Oct. 7 massacre.

Netanyahu approved the Israel Defense Forces’ operational plans for the city along the Sinai border last week. The IDF is preparing operationally for this next stage of the war while also readying for the evacuation of Gazan civilians from Rafah.

At the Knesset meeting, Netanyahu said that he agreed to send the delegation to Washington “out of respect for the president” so the administration can convey its ideas, “especially on the humanitarian side.”

According to the Axios report, other ideas being discussed by the Biden administration include focusing on the humanitarian situation in north Gaza, including constructing shelters for civilians evacuated from Rafah to reduce noncombatant casualties during a military offensive.

A tent camp in Rafah for Palestinians who evacuated from their homes, Jan. 30, 2024. (Photo: Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

Another idea, U.S. officials said, is to concentrate on fortifying the Egyptian side of the Gaza border in a joint Israel-American-Egyptian project to destroy tunnels and prevent arms smuggling across the border.

The Israeli delegation flying to the U.S. capital will include Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and an Israel Defense Forces official leading humanitarian efforts in Gaza. Notably, the delegation will not include IDF officials in charge of planning the Rafah military operation, which the Biden administration had requested.

Gallant to meet Austin in D.C.

Separately from the White House Rafah meeting, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will travel to Washington next week for a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speak to reporters in Tel Aviv, Oct. 13, 2023.
(Photo: Chad J. McNeeley/U.S. Department of Defense)

“Minister Gallant is scheduled to meet with the secretary at the Pentagon to hold an in-depth dialogue on a range of security issues including developments in the war against the Hamas terrorist organization, force build-up, humanitarian issues and areas of bilateral military cooperation,” according to a Defense Ministry statement.

The visit comes at the invitation of Austin and will also include meetings with other senior administration officials and congressional leaders.

Most Israelis support Rafah op

Some 82% of Israelis support a military invasion of the last Hamas bastion of Rafah, a recent survey by Hebrew-language business daily Globes shows.

Broken down, 49% favor entering Rafah under any circumstances, 20% if coordinated with the United States, 13% even without American coordination if there is a solution for evacuating civilians, 10% not under any circumstances and 9% don’t know.

Other highlights from the poll include 62% of the public saying that Israel is doing all it can to avoid harm to civilians, while 19% believe that Israel does too much in this regard since “there are no noncombatants in the Strip.” Just 11% said that Israel doesn’t do enough to protect civilians and 7% are unsure.

Additionally, a plurality of 44% of Israelis favor making humanitarian aid conditional on a hostage release deal.

Most Israelis want the war to continue, underscoring the backing Netanyahu and the War Cabinet have to continue fighting until Hamas’s defeat. Forty-one percent of the public say fighting should continue regardless of world opinion, while 40% believe that the war should continue but that international views should be taken into account.

The survey of 989 men and women aged 18 and over was carried out via the Internet on March 12-13.

Research firm Shiluv, headed by Israel Oleinik, carried out the survey, with a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.

Senior Hamas operatives in Rafah eliminated

The IDF revealed on Wednesday that two days earlier, fighter jets struck several senior Hamas operatives in Rafah based on IDF and Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) intelligence.

They were named as Sayid Katab Alkhashash, responsible for northern Rafah; Osama Hamd Zaher, responsible for eastern Rafah; Muhammad Aud Almelalakhi, also responsible for eastern Rafah; and Hadi Abu Alrus Kasin, an operations officer.

Furthermore, Nidal Aleed, head of Hamas’s Rafah Emergency Bureau, was killed in a strike last week.

“The senior operatives were the representatives of Hamas’s leadership in Rafah. As part of their roles, they managed the terror organization’s activities in humanitarian zones and were responsible for coordination with Hamas operatives in the field,” according to the IDF statement.

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