Biden says Israel shouldn’t press into Rafah without ‘credible’ plan to protect civilians

A Palestinian on Sunday morns a relative killed in the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israel should not conduct a military operation against the Hamas militant group in the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians, U.S. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, the White House said.

It was the most forceful language yet from the president on the possible operation. Biden, who last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top,” also sought “urgent and specific” steps to strengthen humanitarian aid. Israel’s Channel 13 television said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.

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Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas 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.

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.

Biden and Netanyahu 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, where Egypt 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 Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against Hamas. He asserted that Hamas has four battalions there.