Israel’s Netanyahu rejects U.S. request to halt Rafah offensive.Tensions rise ahead of talks in Washington

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken Israel’s prime minister returned home empty-handed on Friday as he rejected U.S. calls to cancel a promised ground invasion of Gaza’s southern city. RafaIt was crowded with displaced civilians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tough message sets the stage for potentially tough talks next week between top U.S. officials and a senior Israeli delegation in Washington. Netanyahu said Israel was prepared to “act alone” in Rafah if necessary. Despite the differences, the Biden administration has continued to provide critical military aid and diplomatic support even as Israel’s war against Hamas has killed more than 32,000 people in Gaza and led to a worsening humanitarian crisis.

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Israel He called Rafah the last remaining stronghold of Hamas and said the armed group’s forces must be defeated for Israel to achieve its war goals. Hamas launched an attack on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people, took 250 hostages and triggered a fierce Israeli air and ground offensive in Gaza, with Israel vowing to destroy the group.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures during departure at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, March 22, 2024. (Evelyn Hochstein, pool photo via AP)

But Rafah now hosts more than 1 million homeless Palestinians fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza. The United States joins much of the international community in fearing that an Israeli ground incursion would endanger civilian lives and impede the flow of much-needed humanitarian aid into the territory, much of it coming from Rafah.

Netanyahu said he told Blinken that Israel was studying how to evacuate civilians from the war zone and address humanitarian needs in Gaza, where international aid officials said the entire population faces food insecurity in the hard-hit northern region. Imminent famine.

“I also said we can’t defeat Hamas without getting into Rafah,” Netanyahu said. “I told him I hope we can do it with the support of the United States, but if necessary , we will do it alone.”

Blinken told reporters at the end of his sixth trip to the Middle East since the war began that the United States and Israel share the goal of defeating Hamas.

“But we believe that a large-scale ground operation in Rafah is not the way to achieve this goal, and we are very clear about that,” he said, adding that Israel would face increasing isolation if it pressed ahead.

The looming Rafah incursion casts a pall over ongoing efforts to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Blinken, who also met with Arab leaders during his trip this week, acknowledged that “there is still a lot of work to be done.”

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Blinken spoke shortly after a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council ceasefire resolution was vetoed by Russia and China. Blinken said it was “unthinkable” that the measure would be rejected.

Tensions escalate in Rafah

The United States initially strongly supported Israel after the Oct. 7 attack. But as the war continued into its fifth month, relations between the two countries worsened.

Palestinian health officials in Gaza said on Friday that at least 32,070 people had died, at least two-thirds of them women and children. Israel claimed at least a third of the dead were Hamas militants and said the group was hiding and operating in residential areas, causing civilian casualties.

The U.S. position on Operation Rafah has changed in recent days. Officials called for a plan to keep civilians out of harm’s way. Now, they say there is no reliable way to do this.

“It has the potential to kill more civilians. It has the potential to cause greater disruption to the delivery of humanitarian aid. It has the potential to further isolate Israel around the world and jeopardize its long-term security and standing,” Blinken said.

U.S. officials say other options, including specifically targeted operations against known Hamas fighters and commanders, are the only way to avoid a civilian catastrophe.

About three-quarters of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled to Rafah, which is as far south as they can get from the Egyptian border. Sprawling tent camps now dot the city.

The United States will share its ideas for alternatives at a meeting next week, when a delegation headed by Netanyahu’s national security adviser and members of Israel’s war cabinet travel to Washington. Israel’s defense minister, another member of the war cabinet, will also visit.

Blinken said the talks would focus on postwar plans, another area of ​​disagreement.

The United States wants the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority – which Hamas expelled from Gaza in 2007 – to return to power in the territory and create a clear path to an independent Palestinian state apart from Israel. Netanyahu rejects Palestinian independence or the role of the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the occupied West Bank, and says Israel must maintain long-term security control over Gaza.

The elusive ceasefire

International mediators, led by the United States, Qatar and Egypt, have been working on a ceasefire to pause or end the war in Gaza.

Israel is seeking the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas, which wants an end to the war rather than a temporary pause and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Hamas wants Israel to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners.

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After talks with Israeli leaders, Blinken met with the families of the hostages who hold U.S. citizenship. He later greeted a small group of protesters who had gathered outside the hotel in solidarity with the victims’ families.

Protesters chanted “Thank you, Blinken,” as Blinken walked through the crowd. As he shook hands, he said the United States was “working hard to bring them home.”

Blinken told reporters that progress had been made in recent weeks but that the final gaps were “often the toughest.”

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, a lot of hard work to be done,” he said.

In response to these efforts, he said he also discussed the need to increase humanitarian aid entering Gaza. He said “some positive steps” had been taken in recent days. “But it’s not enough.”

Israel says it has no limits on the amount of humanitarian aid entering Gaza. But international aid groups say Israeli military restrictions, ongoing hostilities and a breakdown in public order have hampered deliveries.

The director-general of the World Health Organization said Thursday that so little food is being allowed into Gaza that up to 60 percent of children under 5 are now malnourished, compared with less than 1 percent before the war began.

UN resolution ‘cynically vetoed’

At the United Nations, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution supporting an “immediate and sustained ceasefire” in Israel’s war with Hamas. Both countries called the measure vague and said it was not a direct demand for an end to the fighting that much of the world is seeking.

The vote in the 15-member Security Council was 11 in favor and three against, including the Council’s Arab representative, Algeria. Guyana abstained from the vote.

A key issue was the unusual wording that the Security Council “identified the need for an immediate and sustained ceasefire.” This wording is not simply a “demand” or “call” for a cessation of hostilities.

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The United States appears to have relaxed, but not given up, its previous demands for Hamas to release all hostages as part of the ceasefire.

Blinken said the measure had been “cynically rejected” and should have been accepted.

“We are trying to show the international community a sense of urgency in linking the ceasefire to the release of hostages,” Blinken said, adding that it was trying to condemn Hamas. “It’s hard to imagine why some countries can’t do this.”

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By Ali Raza

I am a dedicated and skilled News Content Writer with a passion for delivering accurate and engaging stories to a diverse audience. With a solid background in journalism and a keen eye for detail, I bring a commitment to excellence and a deep understanding of the evolving media landscape.

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