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Biden tells Netanyahu to 'not proceed' in Rafah without plan to protect civilians

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to proceed with his planned operation in Rafah unless there's a plan to evacuate more than 1 million civilians there.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to proceed with his planned operation in Rafah unless there's a plan to evacuate more than 1 million civilians there.

Updated February 11, 2024 at 2:34 PM ET

President Biden pushed back on a planned military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling the Israeli leader that "a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there."

In a call with reporters, a senior administration official said there are 1.3 million people in Rafah now who have dire humanitarian needs and nowhere to go. They sought refuge there after they fled fighting in other parts of Gaza.

This is the first time Biden has publicly cautioned Israel against its planned operation in Rafah. Other administration officials have said Israel has an obligation to keep civilians safe, and, as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN told NPR, that under current conditions, Israel's planned military operation in Rafah "cannot proceed."

Israel is planning to ramp up at military operation in Rafah as it broadens its targeting of Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in response to last October's attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. In response, Israel has killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians. Additionally, Israel estimates 103 hostages are still being held alive in Gaza. Last week, Biden called the Israeli response in Gaza "over the top."

The official said that Israeli officials had told their U.S. counterparts that "they wouldn't contemplate an operation [in Rafah] without being able to get civilians out of there."

"The president and the prime minister had a detailed back and forth on that—a good exchange on that," the official said.

The senior administration official said the majority of the 45-minute call between Biden and Netanyahu was spent discussing the need to keep pushing toward a potential hostage deal that would see Hamas release the remaining hostages in exchange for a sustained pause in fighting.

Negotiators from Israel, Egypt, Qatar and the United States are working on a proposal that would see a cessation of hostilities in exchange for the release of Israelis abducted by Hamas during the October attack.

The official said that while there is a framework proposal "pretty much ... now in place ... there's certainly gaps that need to be closed. Some of them are significant." But the official said there had been "real progress" on the matter over the last few weeks.

The remarks come days after Netanyahu rejected a cease-fire plandelivered by Hamas to end the war in Gaza, calling it "delusional" because it would have left Hamas in power of the Gaza Strip at the end of the phased truce.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 10, 2024 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story stated 1,400 people were killed in Israel during an October attack by Hamas. The correct number is 1,200.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.