Biden presses Netanyahu on plans for hostage release, protecting civilians in Rafah


President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Sunday for the first time in more than three weeks, amid rising U.S. concerns over Israel’s plans to launch a major military operation in Rafah, where about 1.4 million civilians are sheltering from ongoing fighting throughout much of Gaza.

Much of the 45-minute conversation focused on a proposal for an extended humanitarian pause in the Israel-Hamas war that would allow the release of hostages still held by the militant group, according to a senior administration official.

Protection of civilians in Gaza “is a constant discussion between us and the Israelis,” even as Biden shares Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas, said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

How civilians would be spared from an Israeli offensive in the southernmost city in Gaza “is a huge question,” the official said. Most of those in Rafah have moved there to avoid fighting elsewhere in the enclave. They live in makeshift shelters and are almost totally supported by the trickle of humanitarian aid that is allowed to transit via the Egyptian border.

“The president and the prime minister had a pretty detailed back and forth on that. I think our position on it is very clear,” the official said. The United States would not support such an operation unless Israel has a plan for civilian protection and sustenance “that was actually planned, prepared and implementable.”

In his strongest public statement to date, Biden told reporters Thursday that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which local health officials said has caused nearly 28,000 deaths, has been “over the top.” Sunday’s conversation was the first between the two leaders since Jan. 19.

Hours before his phone call with Biden, Netanyahu told ABC’s “This Week” that Israel was “doing everything we can to minimize civilian casualties. … But one thing we’re not going to do is we’re not going to let Hamas emerge victorious.”

Asked how and where Israel proposed to care for and move more than a million people to safety from Rafah, Netanyahu pointed to “the areas that we’ve cleared, north of Rafah — plenty of areas there. But we are working out a detailed plan to do so.”

“Those who are saying that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying, lose the war. Keep Hamas there,” Netanyahu said. Israel has said that senior Hamas leaders have moved their operations to southern Gaza to escape Israeli attacks.

The phone call between the leaders came in advance of CIA Director William J. Burns’s trip to Cairo on Tuesday to continue negotiations with Egypt and Qatar on implementing a framework proposal for a pause in the fighting to enable the release of hostages Hamas is still holding inside Gaza. The proposal, sent two weeks ago to both sides in the conflict, calls for a six-week cease-fire that would allow civilian hostages to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and a significant increase in humanitarian aid.

The United States hopes is that the initial pause would build momentum for extensions allowing for the release of all hostages, including Israeli military personnel as well as the bodies of more than two dozen of about 1,200 people who were killed by the Hamas fighters who invaded southern Israel on Oct. 7, sparking the current war.

“The framework is pretty much in place,” the senior administration official said. “There are certainly gaps that need to be closed. Some of them are significant. But there has been real progress over the last few weeks and we’re now seeking to do all we possibly can to capitalize on it.”

Hamas’s response to the proposal, transmitted to negotiators last week, called for thousands of Palestinian prisoners to be released, including some with lengthy sentences for significant crimes. It also insisted that Israel withdraw all its troops from Gaza before discussions on a second-phase release could begin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Tel Aviv at the time, called some of Hamas’s demands “non-starters,” but said that the response had provided “space” to work with.

Despite Netanyahu’s publicly negative response to the proposal, “the framework is not rejected,” the senior official said. “There are gaps that have to close and some of the differences are significant. … But compared to where we were a month ago, to now, there really has been significant progress.”

Sketching the paradoxical relationship between a potential Israeli ground offensive in Rafah and the prospects for fighting pause, the official said, “You will not get a hostage deal unless Hamas is under significant pressure. … It is something the Israelis tell us all the time. It’s something that we agree with.”


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