newsIsrael at War

‘We’re not asking to check their homework,’ Pentagon says of Israel’s Rafah plans

Rafah came up at press conferences of the White House and Pentagon, as well as in conversations with the U.S. secretaries of defense and state.

Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon press secretary, at a press briefing at the Defense Department in Washington, D.C. on May 4, 2023. Credit: Joseph Clark/U.S. Department of Defense.
Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon press secretary, at a press briefing at the Defense Department in Washington, D.C. on May 4, 2023. Credit: Joseph Clark/U.S. Department of Defense.

The U.S. Defense Department is unaware of any plans presented to Washington for review about how Israel would aim to protect Palestinian civilians in Rafah during a ground invasion, a Pentagon spokeswoman said at a press conference on Thursday.

“We’re not asking to check their homework,” said Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon press secretary.

“What we’re asking them to do is put forward a credible plan that they will be able to, as we have said in many conversations, protect the over one million innocent Palestinians that are there,” Singh said.

The Pentagon spokeswoman added that any “credible plan” would have to account for food, medicine and “services” for Palestinians.

“How are you going to provide those as you move a population? I know that’s something that they’re working through,” she said. Austin “remains engaged” with Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, “not just at his level, but levels here at this building and throughout the interagency,” she added. “But I’m just not going to get ahead of any plans that Israel is working on right now.”

Also on Thursday, Lloyd Austin, the U.S. secretary of defense, discussed “Israel’s operations against Hamas in Khan Younis” with Gallant, per a Pentagon readout of their call.

“The secretary raised the need for a credible plan to ensure the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering in Rafah before any military operations proceed there,” according to Singh.

The two “discussed efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages” and Austin “raised the need to improve the deconfliction process with humanitarian groups and to ensure more aid reaches Palestinian civilians, as looting and violence hinder access to humanitarian convoys in Gaza.”

Gallant briefed Austin “on operational developments in the war against the Hamas terrorist organization and detailed progress in dismantling terror infrastructure and eliminating operatives in central and southern Gaza,” per an Israeli readout of the meeting. The Israeli minister “also discussed future operations, emphasizing the IDF’s commitment to operating in accordance with international humanitarian law.”

“The IDF is operating professionally, in a complex environment against a brutal terrorist organization that embeds its military infrastructure and operatives among the civilian population and sensitive civilian institutions such as hospitals,” Gallant stated.

“We have successfully dismantled the Khan Younis Hamas brigade. Our operations in Khan Younis reflect our policy since the start of the war—working precisely, distinguishing between terrorists and civilians and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid despite numerous threats,” he stated.

White House

John Kirby, the White House national security communications advisor, was also asked about humanitarian aid in Gaza at a Thursday press gaggle teleconference.

Kirby told reporters that Brett McGurk, the White House Middle East coordinator, spent a “good couple of hours” with Egyptian counterparts on Wednesday and met on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Gallant, “as well as other members of the war cabinet, including their leaders from Israel’s intelligence agency.”

McGurk also met with family members of Americans held hostage in Gaza, according to Kirby.
 
“The initial indications we’re getting from Brett are these discussions are going well. They are constructive,” Kirby said. “He is, obviously, keenly focused on trying to see if we can’t cement a hostage deal for an extended pause to get all of those hostages home where they belong and get a reduction in the violence so that we can get more humanitarian assistance.”

Kirby Jean-Pierre
John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, speaks from the podium as Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, looks on at a Jan. 22, 2024 press briefing. Credit: Oliver Contreras/White House.

“Obviously, nothing is done until everything is done, and not everything is done in that regard,” Kirby added. “But Brett is working really hard on that, and he’s also talking to the war cabinet, too, about their thinking on Rafah.”
 
So, pretty substantive set of meetings for him, and they’re ongoing.  And that’s about the best I can give you for where we are right now.”

Another reporter asked Kirby about Israel’s plans in Rafah and about negotiations for the return of Israeli hostages.

“I know that Brett had a chance to meet with the war cabinet. And as I said earlier, he absolutely was going to ask them about their plans for Rafah,” Kirby said. “I am still, as I sit here with you today, not aware of any plan that’s been shared with us, any specific plan that’s been shared with us. But I know that Brett was absolutely going to talk to them about sort of where they were in the thinking on that.”

Kirby said he couldn’t confirm reports about a meeting in Paris about the hostages. “Obviously, it’s top of mind of President Biden and the entire National Security Council team,” he said. ” So I can’t confirm the specific reports about Paris, but I can absolutely reassure you that discussions are ongoing, they are active and as I said earlier, we believe they’ve been constructive.”

James Rosen, chief Newsmax White House correspondent asked Kirby: “So that the context and the stakes should be sufficiently clear for all to see, is the war between Israel and Hamas properly viewed as one between the forces of good and the forces of evil?”

“There’s no question that Hamas is evil. I don’t even think that that’s up for debate. I mean, look at what they did on Oct. 7,” Kirby said. “I say this all the time, but I encourage—go read their 2017 manifesto and the one that they put out about 10 years before that.”

“You can’t read that manifesto and not think that this is a terrorist organization with truly genocidal inclinations against Israel and the Israeli people,” Kirby said. “What they did on Oct. 7, you cannot look at anything from that day and not come away believing that this group is evil.”

Foggy Bottom

Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, also addressed Rafah at a press conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday.

Blinken praised Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who he said has “a common desire, a common objective, a common goal to leave the next generation a better future.”

“Those were President Lula’s words; it’s also President Biden’s commitment,” Blinken said. “I think what we’re seeing in so many different areas is the United States and Brazil working closely together to do just that.”

Blinken praised the Brazilian president the day after Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, twice declined to denounce Lulu’s comparison of the Israel Defense Forces and the Nazis. “Look, I’m not—I’m going to let Lula speak for himself,” Jean-Pierre said.

Blinken Lula
U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken meets with Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brasilia, Brazil on Feb. 21, 2024. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.

In Brazil, Blinken addressed “the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.”

“We’re focused intensely on trying to get an agreement that results in the release of the remaining hostages and that produces an extended humanitarian ceasefire,” he said. “Those are goals that I think virtually everyone in the G20 shares.”

Fernando David, a Brazilian reporter for Band TV, asked Blinken for his personal opinion, not that of Washington, about Lula’s comparison of the IDF and the Holocaust and whether that might frustrate Brazil’s efforts as it calls for more countries to have veto power at the U.N. Security Council.

“The quality of the conversation, the exchange, with President Lula—I, on behalf of the United States, could not have been more pleased with, and I’m grateful to him for all of the time he dedicated to our meeting, but also, again, the substance of it,” Blinken said. 

The common U.S. and Brazilian agenda “was almost the entirety of our conversation, and it’s reflective of the fact that in so many ways the vision that President Lula brings is the same vision that President Biden has,” Blinken added.

He added that Washington and Brasília differ in how they approach some issues. “Obviously the comparison of Gaza to the Holocaust we profoundly disagree, but that’s also something that friends do,” Blinken said. “We can have these disagreements, even profound disagreements, on one particular issue or I should say even an aspect of the issue and still continue all of the vital work that we’re doing together.”

“And also, we’re joined in having the shared objectives in this moment of getting hostages out, getting an extended humanitarian ceasefire in, along with more humanitarian assistance and ending the conflict,” Blinken added. “That’s a shared objective.” 

Blinken was asked if Washington is increasingly isolated due to its support for Israel, including using its veto at the U.N. Security Council to block an Algerian resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

The secretary of state said the United States was concerned that the draft resolution was “actually silent as to hostages” and the timing was “counterproductive” to efforts to reach an agreement on the hostages.

“We all share the same goals. Everyone wants to see an end to this conflict as soon as possible. Everyone wants to see an end to the suffering of children, women and men in Gaza, who—so many innocents who’ve suffered and continue to suffer so terribly, who are caught in this crossfire of Hamas’s making,” Blinken said.

“We all want to see that end as quickly as possible, and I think all of us are united in wanting to see after Gaza the path forward to a genuinely durable, sustainable peace, to make sure that this never happens again for Israelis and never happens again for Palestinians,” he added.

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