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Hours after Israel frees hostages in Rafah, Biden says no operation there sans civilian plan

The U.S. president, who stood alongside Jordan’s king, said that there have been “too many” Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza.

U.S. President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
U.S. President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday that Israel “should not proceed” with a military operation in the Palestinian city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, without a plan for the more than 1 million civilians currently sheltering in the area.

Speaking alongside the visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II at the White House, Biden added that there have been “too many” Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza. He appeared to cite statistics from the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry, despite having criticized those numbers in the past.

“For the past four months, as the war has raged, the Palestinian people have also suffered unimaginable pain and loss,” Biden said. “Too many of the over 27,000 Palestinians killed in this conflict have been innocent civilians and children, including thousands of children. And hundreds of thousands have no access to food, water or other basic services.”

The Associated Press reported last week that “the Palestinian death toll from the war has surpassed 27,840 people, the Health Ministry in Gaza said.” The AP, quoting Ann Skelton, chair of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, added that the “latest U.N. figures—largely based on statistics from the Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza—showed more than 27,000 people have died in the Israel-Hamas war since Oct. 7.”

On Monday, Biden also repeated his position that the Israeli military must account for Rafah’s civilian population before commencing any major operation there.

“The major military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible plan for ensuring the safety and support of more than one million people sheltering there,” Biden said. “Many people there have been displaced multiple times, fleeing the violence to the north, and now they’re packed into Rafah, exposed and vulnerable. They need to be protected.”

“We have also been clear from the start: We oppose any forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza,” he added.

The Jordanian king went further, saying he opposed the operation entirely.

“We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah,” he said. “It is certain to produce another humanitarian catastrophe.”

“We need a lasting ceasefire now,” he added. “This war must end.”

Biden mentioned the hostages briefly on two occasions. The king did not.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on Friday that he ordered the Israel Defense Forces and the security establishment to submit a plan for the Rafah operation that includes a civilian evacuation effort. He also said that victory against Hamas would be “impossible” without taking Rafah.

Biden also discussed the latest proposal to secure the release of the remaining 134 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7. The deal would include six weeks of an “immediate and sustained period of calm” in Gaza, which could then lead to “something more enduring,” Biden said on Monday.

“The key elements of the deal are on the table,” he said. “There are gaps that remain, but I’ve encouraged Israeli leaders to keep working to achieve the deal.”

Biden did not answer any of the questions shouted by the White House press pool.

Earlier this month, Hamas rejected a hostage deal that would have included a two-month ceasefire. Israel rejected Hamas’s counterproposal, which called for the release of additional terrorists from Israeli prisons and a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Israel on Monday successfully rescued two hostages from Rafah in an overnight military operation.

Biden and Abdullah each referred to the “two-state solution.” Neither referred to the two hostages whom Israel freed hours prior.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said on Monday that the Biden administration did not consider Israel’s actions in Rafah so far to be part of a “full-scale” military operation. But critics of the Biden administration pointed to the rescue as an indication why such an operation is necessary.

“Two hostages are now free because thankfully Israel didn’t cave to pressure from Biden not to go into Rafah,” wrote Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

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