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Netanyahu, in Defiance of Biden's 'Red Line,' Authorizes Plans for Rafah Offensive

More than a month after first announcing Israel’s intended offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized plans for the incursion to take place, a spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s office confirmed on Friday. Though an exact time frame for the operation was not specified, it is said to include plans for the evacuation of the city’s civilians.

The announcement comes amid weeks of heightened concern among human rights organizations and world leaders alike about the impact that such an offensive would have on Rafah’s 1.4 million residents, many of whom were instructed to flee there at the onset of Israel’s ground invasion. The prospect of an incursion on Rafah has appeared to be a turning point for some of Israel’s staunchest allies in the U.S. and Europe, many of whom have urged Israel against it, calling instead for a ceasefire. In a recent interview with MSNBC, President Biden reaffirmed his administration’s opposition to military action in Rafah without a credible and executable plan to safeguard the civilian population sheltering there, warning that an attack on the city would constitute a “red line.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Friday that no such reports have been presented.

Shaina Low, a communications adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, tells TIME that for such an evacuation to be lawful, evacuees must be given safe passage, provided the facilities and basic necessities needed for their survival, and guaranteed their right to return home once hostilities have ended. “We’ve seen in the past instances when Israel has issued directives for Palestinians to flee south from north of Wadi Gaza, for example, that none of these conditions were met,” she says, adding that given the sheer number of people sheltering in Rafah, “It’s very, very difficult to imagine how those people could safely be evacuated and where they’d be evacuated to.”

By approving plans for the offensive, which the Israeli military says involve moving civilians to designated “humanitarian islands” elsewhere in the Strip, Netanyahu has signaled his intent to cross that red line. What remains to be seen is how Biden chooses to respond.

“When the President of the United States makes a strong statement like indicating that certain action would cross a red line, it’s important that the Biden administration effectively back up those words with the leverage that it has,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a leading Democratic lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tells TIME.

Those levers include how the U.S. chooses to exercise its vote at the U.N. Security Council, where Washington has vetoed all previous resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire, as well as the transfer of additional arms and other lethal aid to Israel for use in Gaza. While the Biden administration has so far proven unwilling to utilize American leverage to its full extent, it has come under greater pressure to do so in recent weeks as the death toll in Gaza surpasses 30,000.

In addition to the offensive, Netanyahu’s office also confirmed that an Israeli delegation will travel to Qatar, which has acted as a mediator in U.S.-backed ceasefire talks with Hamas, whose demands the prime minister’s office dubbed “still unrealistic.”

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.