As Israel and US continue talks on southern Gaza city, with top Jerusalem officials set to hear American proposals in Washington, Blinken to hold discussions during visit Friday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he would “soon approve plans to evacuate the civilian population” from Rafah ahead of an expected major operation in the southern Gaza city.

At the same time, he acknowledged that preparations for the operation “will take some time,” as Jerusalem continues its dialogue with Washington, amid intense American concerns over the potential civilian cost in the city that is both Hamas’s last major stronghold in the Strip and the last refuge of over a million refugees from other parts of the enclave amid the war.

“While we are preparing to enter Rafah, which will take some time, we continue to operate with all our might,” said Netanyahu. “We continue to operate in Khan Younis, in the central [Gaza] camps, for the elimination and capture of senior Hamas officials, as we just did in Shifa Hospital, while eliminating hundreds of terrorists.”

Netanyahu made the statement two days after a phone call with US President Joe Biden on the state of the war and plans for Rafah. During that call, Biden effectively ruled out support for a major ground offensive in Rafah, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.

Netanyahu expressed appreciation for Biden’s support for Israel, adding that the president had asked to present US proposals to Jerusalem on humanitarian assistance and other aspects of the war.

Two senior US officials told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that the US will present alternative plans for how Israel can continue pursuing Hamas without launching a major ground operation in Rafah during an upcoming meeting with a visiting Israeli delegation in Washington.

Netanyahu has said the IDF will evacuate the civilians to areas north of Rafah before beginning the operation and declared Friday that he had approved the military’s plans for the offensive. US officials speaking on condition of anonymity to The Times of Israel in recent weeks increasingly expressed their skepticism that such a large-scale evacuation would be possible.

“The key goals Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be done by other means,” Sullivan asserted Monday.

In his Wednesday statement, Netanyahu said: “As I promised you time and time again — we are determined to achieve absolute victory, and we will achieve it.”

More than 1.3 million Palestinians are estimated to be sheltering in the Rafah area, after the IDF issued evacuation warnings from northern Gaza and other areas in the Strip amid its ground offensive against Hamas. Unable to leave the tiny Palestinian territory, many are living in makeshift tent camps or overflowing UN-run shelters.

The ground offensive began within a month of the outbreak of the war on October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 captives.

A boy fills water containers from a hose in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 19, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Shortly after Netanyahu’s statement, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told the press that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will discuss the need to ensure Hamas’s defeat, “including in Rafah,” confirming the top American diplomat’s planned Friday visit to Israel.

The US came out against Israel’s plan to launch a major ground invasion in Rafah this week and is instead pushing for a more limited operation in the city and other parts of Gaza targeting Hamas’s military leaders. Washington also seeks to secure the Egypt-Gaza border to prevent continued smuggling, a surge of humanitarian aid through new access points into the enclave, and the promotion of a viable Palestinian Authority-linked alternative to Hamas rule, US officials told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The US aims to discuss these alternative plans with two of Netanyahu’s top aides, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, on Sunday in Washington, but the issues will ostensibly be on Blinken’s agenda when he arrives in Tel Aviv on Friday.

“Blinken will [also] discuss… the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of all hostages,” Miller said in a statement.

“He will discuss the need to ensure the defeat of Hamas, including in Rafah, in a way that protects the civilian population, does not hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance and advances Israel’s overall security.

He will also “discuss US and international efforts to dramatically increase and sustain the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians who are suffering from a lack of adequate food supplies.”

As reported by The Times of Israel