Blinken says Israeli assault on Gaza’s Rafah would be a ‘mistake’ and isn’t needed to defeat Hamas

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, during his visit to Cairo, Egypt, Thursday March 21, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein, Pool Photo via AP)

CAIRO — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday a major Israeli ground assault on the southern Gaza town of Rafah would be “a mistake” and “unnecessary” to defeating Hamas, underscoring the further souring of relations between the United States and Israel.

Blinken, on his sixth urgent Mideast mission since the war began in October, spoke after huddling with top Arab diplomats in Cairo for discussions over efforts for a cease-fire and over ideas for Gaza’s post-conflict future. He said an “immediate, sustained cease-fire” with the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas was urgently needed and that gaps were narrowing in indirect negotiations that U.S., Egypt and Qatar have spent weeks mediating. Those negotiations are to continue at a senior level in Qatar on Friday.


Blinken heads to Israel on Friday to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet. The growing disagreements between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden over the prosecution of the war will likely overshadow those talks — particularly over Netanyahu’s determination to launch a ground assault on Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge from devastating Israeli ground and air strikes further north.

Netanyahu has said that without an invasion of Rafah, Israel can’t achieve its goal of destroying Hamas after its deadly Oct. 7 attack and taking of hostages that triggered Israel’s bombardment and offensive in Gaza.

“A major military operation in Rafah would be a mistake, something we don’t support. And, it’s also not necessary to deal with Hamas, which is necessary,” Blinken told a news conference in Cairo with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. A major offensive would mean more civilian deaths and worsen Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, Blinken said, adding that his talks on Rafah in Israel on Friday and discussions between senior U.S. and Israeli officials next week in Washington will be to share ideas for alternative action.

The U.S. position on a Rafah operation has shifted significantly in recent days. Initially, U.S. officials said they could not support a major incursion into the city unless there was a clear and credible plan for getting civilians out of harm’s way. Now, U.S. officials said they have concluded that there is no credible way to do that given the density of the population of more than a million people. They say now that other options, including specifically targeted operations against known Hamas fighters and commanders, are the only way to avoid a civilian catastrophe.

But Netanyahu, on a roughly 45-minute call with GOP senators on Wednesday, pledged to ignore warnings about a Rafah operation. He also took aim at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s condemnation last week of the civilian death toll in Gaza and his call for new elections in Israel in a speech that Biden later said was “good.”

Netanyahu stressed that Israel would move ahead in Rafah, according to senators who participated in the meeting.

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