Joe Biden warns Israel against Rafah offensive without 'credible' plan to protect civilians

Joe Biden took a rare step of urging Israel to delay its ground offensive on Rafah, the final refuge for many Gazans, but Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on, ITV News's Sejal Karia reports

Israel should not carry out its planned offensive on the densely populated city of Rafah without a "credible and executable" plan to protect civilians, President Joe Biden.

His plea to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday is an example of increasingly forceful language regarding the war in the Gaza Strip.

Last week Mr Biden described Israel's military response in the Palestinian territory as "over the top", in a sign that Washington's patience with Tel Aviv is wearing thin, amid a worsening humanitarian crisis and a death toll of over 28,000 people – mostly women and children.

Mr Netanyahu has nonetheless vowed to press ahead in Rafah, a southern city close to the Egyptian border, where over half of the Gaza Strip's population of 2.3 million have sought shelter during the course of the conflict.

He has said the planned ground assault is necessary to wipe out Hamas, whose October 7 attack, which killed 1,200 Israelis, triggered the current invasion of Gaza. Israel says Hamas has four battalions around the city.

Palestinians walk by a residential building destroyed in a strike in Rafah. Credit: AP

However, concerns remain that Palestinians, many of whom are packed into camps and UN-run shelters, will have nowhere left to run, and Egypt fears and influx of refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Even before now, Rafah was the target of Israeli bombing, after Palestinians had been instructed to evacuate southwards for their own safety.

During a 45-minute conversation with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Biden also ought "urgent and specific" steps to strengthen humanitarian aid, according to Israel's Channel 13 television.

Discussion of the potential for a ceasefire agreement took up much of the call, a senior US administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework pretty much is now in place” for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages captured by Hamas on October 7 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 in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.

A Palestinian wounded in the Israeli bombardment sits in a hospital In Rafah. Credit: AP

Mr Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar. Mr Biden and his Israeli counterpart 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.

Cairo 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 Mr Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary.

Mr Netanyahu told the Fox News Sunday programme that there’s “plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to” after Israel’s offensive elsewhere in Gaza. He said Israel would direct evacuees with “flyers, with cellphones and with safe corridors and other things”. The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close US allies, took shape as aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Around 80% of residents have fled their homes, and the UN says a quarter of the population faces starvation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted an invasion of Rafah is necessary to achieve victory. Credit: AP

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering food and medical supplies. On Sunday Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority, said 44 trucks of aid had entered Gaza. About 500 entered daily before the war.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah, according to officials.

“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X.

Human Rights Watch said forced displacement is a war crime, while the White House, which has been arming Israel and has shielded it from international calls for a ceasefire, has warned a ground operation could be a "disaster" for civilians. UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said on Saturday evening that he was "deeply concerned" by Israel's plan, adding: "The priority must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out, then progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire."

Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the Camp David Accords, brokered by the US, in the late 1970s. The agreement includes provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the heavily fortified border. Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the military would be unable to stop a tide of people fleeing into the Sinai Peninsula. The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more and is “severely overcrowded”. Inside Rafah, some displaced people packed up again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings onto a truck. “We don’t know where we can safely take him,” Fedaa said of their baby. “Every month we have to move.” Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, displaced from Nuseirat, said she hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee into the Sinai “because we do not want to leave.”

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