Breach grows between Biden and Israel’s leaders over Rafah invasion

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on Oct. 28, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about student protests at U.S. universities, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, during brief remarks in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2024. REUTERS/Nathan Howard

JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders declared Thursday that they would not be deterred by President Joe Biden’s threat to withhold more arms shipments if the military launched a major assault on densely populated areas of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

Defiant and at times disdainful of the Biden administration’s stance, their comments made clear the widening rift between Israel and the United States over the war and the prospect of a full-scale invasion of Rafah, where about 1 million Palestinians are sheltering.

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And they came as high-level negotiations aimed at reaching a cease-fire and hostage deal were derailed — at least for the moment — amid anger by some of the participants over a military incursion into Rafah by Israeli forces earlier this week.

After that incursion, Biden said the United States, Israel’s closest ally, would not ship more weapons that could be fired into crowded sections of Rafah. On Thursday, an Israeli military spokesperson said his nation had enough munitions on hand to proceed with its plans.

Other Israeli leaders said the military would press ahead with its campaign to destroy Hamas, which led the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

“I turn to Israel’s enemies, as well as to our best of friends, and say: The state of Israel cannot be subdued,” Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said at a memorial ceremony. He said the country would do “whatever is necessary” to defend its citizens and “to stand up to those who attempt to destroy us.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while not responding directly to Biden, also struck a defiant tone. “If we need to stand alone, we will stand alone,” he said.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, was openly scornful of the American president. “Hamas [HEART EMOJI] Biden,” he wrote on social media, drawing what appeared to be a rebuke from Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog. Even when allies disagree, Herzog said, “there is a way to clarify the disputes.”

On Tuesday, American officials disclosed that Biden had withheld 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs out of concern that they could be dropped on Rafah. The administration was reviewing whether to hold back future transfers, including kits that convert so-called dumb bombs into precision-guided munitions, the officials said.

American-made weapons, including heavy bombs, have been essential to Israel’s war effort. But as the death toll in Gaza rises, Biden has been under mounting domestic pressure to rein in the Israeli offensive. In his comments Wednesday, during an interview with CNN, he acknowledged that U.S. bombs had killed civilians in Gaza.

The Biden administration’s concerns have only grown since Israeli tanks and troops entered eastern Rafah on Monday night, taking over the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Israeli forces have stopped short of entering built-up parts of the city, but Netanyahu and others have signaled that such an operation is necessary to eliminate Hamas battalions there.

John F. Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson, reiterated Thursday that while Biden still supports Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas, “smashing into Rafah, in his view, will not advance that objective.”

Nadav Eyal, a prominent columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, a centrist Israeli newspaper, wrote on social media that Biden’s shift on weapons for Israel was “the most serious clash between an American administration and the government of Israel since the first Lebanon war.” During that conflict, which began in 1982, the Reagan administration suspended the delivery of cluster-type artillery ammunition and other weapons to Israel.

“We’ve reached a boiling point,” Eyal said in an interview. “Issues that have been negotiated behind closed doors have now been brought into the public view in a very ugly way.”

Some observers had seen signs this week that Hamas and Israel were edging closer to a deal that would result in a cease-fire and the exchange of hostages being held in Gaza in return for Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel.

But Thursday, high-level talks in Cairo were put on hold, according to officials briefed on the negotiations and Egyptian state media. One official said anger had flared among participants over Israel’s seizure of the Rafah border crossing.

While midlevel Egyptian, Qatari and American officials remained in Cairo, the Hamas and Israeli delegations both left Thursday, Hamas and Israeli officials said. William J. Burns, the CIA director and top American negotiator, also left Cairo, according to multiple officials. The officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations.

Burns had met with Netanyahu on Wednesday in an effort to persuade Israel to continue negotiating over a cease-fire proposal recently revised by Hamas.

One official said that negotiators did not believe that Hamas or Israel were leaving the negotiations permanently. And a senior Egyptian official told state-owned television that mediation efforts were still underway to bridge the differences between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas is seeking an end to the war and the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops, while Israel is offering a temporary cease-fire. Netanyahu has said that Israel will not stop fighting until Hamas is eliminated and all the hostages are freed.

Israel’s incursion into Rafah this week has displaced about 80,000 people there, most of whom are now sheltering in the southern city of Khan Younis or along the Mediterranean coast in Deir al Balah, both areas that lack basic services, Farhan Haq, a United Nations spokesperson, said Thursday.

The Israeli military had told about 110,000 civilians to evacuate parts of Rafah, which has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians, many of them living in tents without adequate food, water and sanitation.

Riyad al-Masry, a sign language interpreter, said Thursday that he and his extended family had left Rafah even though he had already moved five times since the war began. The prospect of a sixth move was “torture beyond torture,” he said — but he said nearby fighting gave him little choice.

“We are almost in the middle of danger,” al-Masry said.

Haq said that goods and fuel had not entered through the Rafah crossing in recent days and that hospitals may have to shut down their generators in a few days. He said the World Food Program had reported that its main warehouse in Gaza was inaccessible because of fighting and that only one bakery in Gaza was still operating.

Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the U.N. humanitarian office in Geneva, described Rafah as a “highly active war zone” and said it presented “serious challenges” for aid distribution in southern Gaza and farther north in the territory.

“We reiterate that the parties’ obligation to facilitate aid does not end at the border or in a drop-off zone,” he said. “Aid must safely reach those who need it.”