Biden urges Netanyahu not to advance into Rafah without a plan to avoid massive civilian casualties

Joe Biden has called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold off invading Rafah until a plan is in place that would prevent massive civilian casualties.

Gazans fleeing Israel's bombardment and military advances have sought shelter in Rafah, a city in the south of the Gaza Strip. An estimated 1.4m Palestinians are currently in the region after being displaced by Israel's campaign against Hamas.

The White House released a synopsis of a call between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu on Sunday.

Mr Biden reportedly "raffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety and support for the more than one million people sheltering there," according to the White House report.

The request is one of the few instances in which Mr Biden has specifically requested that Israel hold back on its military action in Gaza.

Palestinians check destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Feb.10, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Palestinians check destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Feb.10, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The Biden administration made a similar request in November when it asked Israel to avoid "significant further displacement" of Palestinian civilians if it continued its ground campaign in southern Gaza.

At the time, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the Israelis were receptive to US requests. However, the request did not curb Israeli advancement into the region or prevent further displacement.

Mr Biden has used marginally stronger language in recent weeks when discussing Israel's military action in Gaza; when reporters asked him about hostage negotiations at a recent presser, he called the ongoing campaign "over the top."

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top. I think that, as you know, the president of Mexico, Sissi” — referencing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi — “did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in. I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate. I talked to Bibi [Mr Netanyahu] to open the gate on the Israeli side.”

He went on to say he was "pushing really hard, really hard, to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza".

"There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s gotta stop. Number one,” Mr Biden said.

More tha 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since last October, according to its health ministry.

Despite Mr Biden's insistence, Mr Netanyahu has indicated he plans to proceed with his planned invasion of Rafah, and said that an evacuation plan for the Palestinian civilians there is being prepared.

That puts the US in a vice between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has warned of "very serious repercussions" for Israel if they attack Rafah.

As Mr Netanyahu plans to enter Rafah, US officials are visiting the region attempting to negotiate a ceasefire to allow for hostage exchanges and humanitarian assistance to displaced Palestinian civilians.

Mr Netanyahu has not been receptive to the plan for a ceasefire.