By NAJIB JOBAIN and SAMY MAGDY
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israel should not carry out a military operation against Hamas in the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah without a “credible and enforceable” plan to protect civilians, U.S. President Joe Biden told the Prime Minister on Sunday. Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House. said.
This is the strongest language the president has ever uttered on a possible operation. Biden, who last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “overblown,” also called for “urgent and specific” steps to boost humanitarian aid. Israel’s Channel 13 TV said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.
Discussions about the possibility of a ceasefire 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 release. of the remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for stopping the fighting.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to elaborate. The official said military pressure in recent weeks on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis has helped bring the group closer to agreeing to a deal.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV channel earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt was threatening to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent to Rafah, where Egypt fears fighting will push Palestinians towards the Sinai Peninsula and force the closure of the main aid supply route from Gaza. .
The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly half a century, came after Netanyahu said sending troops to Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against Hamas. He said Hamas has four battalions there.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and they are crowded into tent camps and UN-run shelters. Egypt fears a massive influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.
Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday that there was “a lot of space north of Rafah where they can go” after the Israeli offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct the evacuees with “leaflets, cell phones and safe hallways and other things.” But the offensive has caused massive destruction, with limited capacity to accommodate people.
The confrontation between Israel and Egypt, two close US allies, took shape when humanitarian groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. Around 80% of residents have fled their homes and the UN says a quarter of the population faces starvation.
A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only routes for food and medical supplies. Forty-four aid trucks entered Gaza on Sunday, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. Around 500 people entered daily before the war.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of serious repercussions if Israel enters Rafah.
“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an indescribable humanitarian catastrophe and serious tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X. Human Rights Watch said the Forced displacement is a war crime.
The White House, which has sent weapons to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a ceasefire, warned that a ground operation in Rafah would be a “disaster” for civilians.
Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords in the late 1970s. The agreement includes provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the border heavily fortified.
Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the army will not be able to stop a flood of people fleeing to the Sinai Peninsula.
The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, is now home to 1.4 million more and is “severely overcrowded.”
Inside Rafah, some displaced people have packed their bags again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north at the start of the war, placed their belongings in a truck. “We don’t know where we can take him safely,” Fedaa said of their baby. “Every month we have to move. »
Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, displaced from Nuseirat, said she hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee to Sinai “because we don’t want to leave.”
So far, Israel has ordered much of Gaza’s population to flee south, with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the territory.
Heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and Khan Younis. In Gaza City, remaining residents covered decomposing bodies in the streets or carried them to graves.
Gaza’s health ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been taken to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The death toll stands at 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but says most of those killed were women and children.
The war began with the Hamas attack in southern Israel on October 7, when fighters killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped about 250. More than 100 hostages were freed in November during a week-long ceasefire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some remaining hostages died.
Hamas has said it will not release more unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. He also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including high-ranking fighters serving life sentences.
Netanyahu ruled out both demands, saying Israel would continue to fight until “total victory” and the return of all the hostages.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.
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