US assesses Israel has amassed enough troops to launch full-scale incursion into Rafah, officials say

The Biden administration has assessed that Israel has amassed enough troops on the edge of the city of Rafah in Gaza to move forward with a full-scale incursion in the coming days, but senior US officials are currently unsure if it has made a final decision to carry out such a move in direct defiance of President Joe Biden, two senior administration officials told CNN.

One of the officials also warned that Israel has not come anywhere close to making adequate preparations – including building infrastructure related to food, hygiene and shelter – ahead of potentially evacuating more than one million Gazans are who currently reside in Rafah.

If Israel were to proceed with a major ground operation into Rafah, it would be going against months of warnings from the US to forego a full-scale offensive into the densely populated city. Biden himself voiced that warning in his most explicit terms yet last week, telling CNN’s Erin Burnett that the US would withhold some additional arms shipments to Israel if they were to take such a step.

“The president was clear that he would not supply certain offensive weapons for such an operation were to occur,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House Monday. “It has not yet occurred.”

As the war enters its eighth month, US officials are increasingly questioning Israel’s approach to the war, including publicly suggesting it is unlikely to achieve its stated aim of destroying Hamas and eliminating its leadership.

On Monday, Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s number two official, said there have plainly been tensions between the two countries on “what the theory of victory is.”

“Sometimes when we listen closely to Israeli leaders, they talk about mostly the idea of some sort of sweeping victory on the battlefield, total victory. I don’t think we believe that that is likely or possible,” Campbell said, in a seeming allusion to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated references to a “total victory.” “We view that there has to be more of a political solution. That’s one of the reasons why the president’s team has been so engaged with the surrounding region,” Campbell said at the NATO Youth Summit co-hosted by the Aspen Institute.

Going “headlong into Rafah” could have dire consequences, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Sunday.

“Israel’s on the trajectory, potentially, to inherit an insurgency with many armed Hamas left, or, if it leaves, a vacuum filled by chaos, filled by anarchy and probably refilled by Hamas,” Blinken said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

US believes Hamas has been ‘significantly degraded’

And though the US believes Israel will be unable to completely destroy Hamas, the administration believes Israel has achieved many of its initial war aims. State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said last week that Hamas has been “significantly degraded.”

“You have seen their ability to launch the kind of attacks that they did on October 7 significantly degraded, if not completely eliminated,” he said. “They couldn’t launch an attack of that scale today.”

“Their weapons production factories underground have been eliminated. Most of their battalion leadership in the north and in central Gaza has been eliminated. So Israel has achieved a great number of its military objectives,” he continued.

It remains unclear whether senior Hamas leaders are present in Rafah, but the US is continuing to assist Israel in its mission of trying to eradicate as many senior members as possible, including by providing significant intelligence assistance in trying to track down figures including Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza.

As Biden continues to call for Israel and Hamas to reach a temporary ceasefire and hostage release agreement, in private, senior US officials have not gone as far as to urge Israel to consider a permanent end to the fighting, according to the senior administration official. However, the Biden administration has been ramping up the pressure on Israel to start focusing much more in earnest on post-war Gaza plans – so far, to little effect.

Israel’s lack of interest on the so-called “day after” plans has been a source of growing frustration for Biden advisers, according to one of the senior administration officials, who went as far as to describe Israel as displaying the attitude of believing that post-war Gaza is somebody else’s problem to figure out.

In public and in private, this official said, Israel has offered no clear views on two major questions: post-war governance and who would oversee the strip’s security whenever the war eventually comes to an end.

Blinken publicly called on Israel to engage more seriously on developing a plan for post-war Gaza over the weekend. So far, the engagement has been sorely lacking, Blinken said.

“We’ve been working for many, many weeks on developing critical plans for security, for governance, for rebuilding. We haven’t seen that come from Israel,” Blinken said on CBS. “We’ve been working with Arab countries and others on that plan. We need to see that too. We have the same objective as Israel. We want to make sure that Hamas cannot govern Gaza again.”

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