update deskU.S.-Israel Relations

Discordant messages to Israel from Biden admin on Rafah operation

Senior U.S. officials have said both that Israel needs a plan to protect civilians before going into Rafah and that such protection is impossible.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18, 2023. Credit: Chad McNeeley/U.S. Department of Defense.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18, 2023. Credit: Chad McNeeley/U.S. Department of Defense.

Washington seems to be sending mixed messages about an impending Israeli military operation in the city of Rafah in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip.

Administration officials continue to oppose a ground-troop movement aimed at eliminating the last Hamas military strongholds there.

Still, in the last few days, top Biden administration officials have said they cannot comment on whether there is an alternative to an Israeli ground operation in Rafah since they haven’t seen plans to evacuate civilians. At the same time, they have said that Israel must not carry out an operation because there is no way to protect those same civilians.

In a Wednesday phone call with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III “raised the need to consider alternatives to a major ground operation in Rafah while reiterating the shared goal of defeating Hamas,” according to Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary.

Earlier that day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Christiane Baissary, of the Saudi state-owned Al Hadath, during an interview in Jeddah that U.S. President Joe Biden “has been very clear that we cannot support a major ground operation, military operation in Rafah.”

“There are, as you know, 1.4 million or so civilians in Rafah, many of them displaced from other parts in Gaza,” Blinken said. “There’s no effective way of getting them out of the way and to safety, and even the people that would remain in Rafah would be in terrible jeopardy.”

“What we don’t want to see is a major ground operation, because we don’t see how that can be done without doing terrible harm to civilians,” he added.

The previous day, both Austin and General Charles Brown Jr., chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested otherwise during a press conference on Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“We’ve been clear about the need to prioritize the protection of civilians and that a military operation should not proceed without a clear and implementable plan to evacuate those civilians out of the battlespace and also care for them once you evacuate them,” the U.S. defense secretary said.

“We’ve yet to see such a plan, but we’ll have an opportunity to engage the leadership here on that soon,” Austin said. 

Brown stated something similar. “Having not seen the detailed plans that the Israelis might have for Rafah, it’s hard for me to lay out an alternative,” the Joint Chiefs chair said. “Even so, I wouldn’t provide to you specifics in this forum naturally.”

Vedant Patel, principal deputy U.S. State Department spokesman, also appeared to suggest that Washington would only reject an operation in Rafah if Israel didn’t have a plan to save civilians.

“We continue to feel quite strongly that such an operation in Rafah, where there are more than a million people seeking refuge, a region that continues to be a key conduit for the entrance of humanitarian aid, that doing something like that without a credible and clear plan is something that—without a plan that also doesn’t address for the various humanitarian pieces would be a disaster,” he said on Tuesday at the department’s press briefing.

A White House readout of a March 18 call between Biden and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu said that the two “agreed to have their teams meet in Washington to exchange views and discuss alternative approaches that would target key elements of Hamas and secure the Egypt-Gaza border without a major ground operation in Rafah.”

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