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As Israel attacks Rafah, US offers only words of caution

By Humeyra Pamuk

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - U.S. officials made their most pointed criticism so far of Israel's civilian casualties in Gaza as it turns the focus of its offensive to Rafah, but there was nothing to suggest the rhetoric from Washington would be backed by action.

On his fifth trip to the region since the deadly Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday criticized Israeli military activity in Gaza, saying civilian deaths remained too high even after repeated warnings, and suggested specific steps for Israel to follow.

Any "military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost ... And that's especially true in the case of Rafah," because of the presence of more than one million displaced people, Blinken told a news conference.

When asked if the United States was going to "stand by" as Israeli forces target Rafah, Blinken repeated the U.S. position that Israel's military operation should put civilians first.

U.S. diplomats have urged Israel to change its tactics in Gaza for months, with few signs of success.

Washington has not tried steps that would exert greater pressure such as restricting its $3.8 billion in annual military assistance to Israel or changing its support for its longtime ally at the United Nations. Critics say this provides a sense of impunity for the country.

Aaron David Miller at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace cited factors including President Joe Biden's personal support for Israel and politics as reasons the U.S. has not taken such steps.

The administration will continue to "work with the Israelis, talk tough at times, but until you see some concrete evidence that they’re prepared to actually do things ... I just don’t see it coming,” said Miller.

More than half of the enclave's residents are in Rafah on the Egyptian border in southern Gaza, many having moved multiple times to escape the conflict.

Israel has been bombing Rafah and residents fear a ground assault. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said last week that Israel's campaign would expand to the city to target militants.

White House spokesperson John Kirby on Thursday that any assault on Rafah without due consideration of civilians would be "a disaster".

Nearly 28,000 people have been killed in the Israeli military campaign in Hamas-run Gaza, according health officials there.

Israel unleashed its war to eradicate Hamas after militants from Gaza launched a shock incursion into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing around 240 hostages.

"Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7th...But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others," Blinken said.

Israel says it takes steps to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas militants of hiding among civilians, including at school shelters and hospitals, leading to more civilian deaths. Hamas has denied this.

(Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Steve Holland and Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by Don Durfee)