US and Israeli officials convene virtually to discuss pending Rafah operation

The meeting was originally scheduled last week but was canceled by Benjamin Netanyahu after the US failed to veto a U.N. resolution on the war on March 25.

By Joshua Marks, JNS

The United States and Israel agreed during a virtual meeting on Monday that Hamas must be defeated in Gaza’s Rafah city, according to a White House statement.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken led the American side in the discussion, which was conducted via secure video conference; Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi represented the Israeli side.

Also present for the U.S.-Israel Strategic Consultative Group (SCG) meeting were experts and senior officials from both countries.

“The two sides over the course of two hours had a constructive engagement on Rafah. They agreed that they share the objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah,” according to the White House statement.

“The U.S. side expressed its concerns with various courses of action in Rafah. The Israeli side agreed to take these concerns into account and to have follow up discussions between experts, overseen by the SCG. The follow up discussions would include in person SCG meeting as early as next week,” the statement continued.

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The meeting took place against the backdrop of increased tensions between Jerusalem and Washington in recent weeks over Israeli plans for a full-scale invasion of the last Hamas bastion, which Israeli says is necessary to prevent the terrorist group from reestablishing itself and repeating the Oct. 7 massacre, which it has vowed to do.

According to Israeli estimates, the final four Hamas battalions, consisting of some 3,000 fighters, are concentrated in the city along the Gaza-Egypt border.

The Biden administration has expressed concern about the safety of noncombatants given that the population of Rafah has swelled to well over a million during the six-month-long war. The U.S. opposes a full-scale military invasion.

For its part, Israel is working on plans to evacuate the noncombatant population of Rafah to “humanitarian islands” in the center of the coastal enclave and has reportedly ordered 40,000 tents from China for the temporary relocation.

The meeting was originally scheduled last week and was to be an in-person affair at the White House involving Dermer and Hanegbi, but was canceled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the United States failed to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution on the war on March 25.

However, the White House said on March 27 that Netanyahu had agreed to reschedule the meeting.

An Israeli official told Walla! on Monday that another meeting is scheduled for next week that will include an Israeli delegation visiting Washington, which Monday’s White House statement appears to confirm.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi in a recent conversation that “we will not accept any more thousands of innocent deaths in Rafah, as in Gaza [City] and Khan Yunis,” according to Kan News.

Brown, the highest-ranking military officer in the United States, offered Halevi an alternative plan focused around the isolation and encirclement of Rafah by Israeli forces, accompanied by targeted raids based on intelligence.

The alternative plan also includes technological advances to secure the Gaza-Egypt border, a major source of arms smuggling, including border closures and using cameras and sensors.

Netanyahu has repeatedly emphasized that telling Israel to refrain from operating in Rafah is equivalent to demanding that it lose the war.

Many of the 134 hostages still in the hands of Hamas in Gaza 177 days after being kidnapped by the terror group are believed to be in Rafah. Two captives were rescued from the city by Israeli special forces last month.

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Around three-quarters of Jewish Israelis and a majority of Israelis overall support expanding the IDF’s military operations against Hamas to Rafah, according to polling conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute.