Israel has not presented plan to protect civilians in Rafah, White House says

Ramadan begins with no ceasefire on the horizon and a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians, who fled their homes due to Israeli strikes, have been sheltering in tent camps in Rafah. Reuters
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President Joe Biden continues to oppose a military operation in Rafah, the White House said on Monday, as Israel has not presented a “credible and implementable” plan to protect civilians in the southern Gaza city that is sheltering more than one million Palestinians.

White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said Mr Biden maintains that Israel has a right to self-defence, but it must proceed in a manner consistent with the laws of war.

She added Israel must also avoid adding to the dire humanitarian situation and “the unacceptably high level of civilian casualties”.

“No military operation should take place in Rafah if there is no credible and implementable plan to take care of the safety and security needs of the more than a million civilians sheltering there,” Ms Dalton told reporters aboard AirForce One.

“And we've seen no such plan.”

The comments come after a ceasefire failed to materialise with the advent of Ramadan and after Mr Biden and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded barbs at the weekend.

Mr Netanyahu has vowed to launch an all-out offensive in Rafah, the southern Gazan city where half of the enclave's population has sought refuge, without specifying where civilians could go to escape the fighting.

Mr Biden has said that an attack on Rafah without an safety plan for Palestinian civilians would be a “red line”, but also said he would continue to provide military support for Israel.

Displaced Gazans decorate tents for Ramadan

Displaced Gazans decorate tents for Ramadan

The President, who is running for re-election, has supported Israel in its massive military operation in Gaza, which it launched on October 7 after Hamas gunmen attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking hundreds more hostage.

But amid public disagreements over a potential invasion of Rafah and frustration over the insufficient entry of aid into the enclave, some experts have said Mr Biden could adopt a tougher stance with Mr Netanyahu.

Last week, Mr Biden was recorded saying he had told Mr Netanyahu that the two were headed for a “come to Jesus” conversation over the issue of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Ms Dalton said that the last time the two leaders spoke was in mid-February, though teams from both countries are in touch on a daily basis.

“The President has held a decades-long, constructive, productive relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu – the length of that relationship that they've had allows him to be direct and honest at a time where that's needed, but there's no change here to the strength of the two leaders’ relationship,” she said.

In a statement to mark the beginning of Ramadan on Sunday, Mr Biden said that the holy month comes “at a moment of intense pain” for the Muslim community.

“As Muslims gather around the world over the coming days and weeks to break their fast, the suffering of the Palestinian people will be front of mind for many,” he said. “It is front of mind for me.”

Ramadan in Gaza – in pictures

In more than five months of war, more than 31,100 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children, have been killed, according to Gaza health authorities.

The US, along with Qatar and Egypt, for weeks had been working on brokering a pause in the fighting ahead of Ramadan.

Negotiations are continuing on the agreement, which would include the release of hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, as well as the entry of a greater amounts of much-needed humanitarian aid.

But talks have stalled as both sides have failed to agree on the terms of the ceasefire.

Meanwhile in the more than five months of war, the majority of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been displaced and hundreds of thousands are facing famine.

After months of US efforts to get Israel to allow the sustained entry of aid into Gaza by land, the US said it would deliver assistance by sea from nearby Cyprus, though the mission could take weeks as the effort requires the installation of a military pier.

Last week, the US began dropping food into the strip by air, but humanitarian aid groups said the effort is both dangerous to civilians and insufficient.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 7:00 PM