Mon, Jul 15, 2024
The Biden administration says Israel hasn’t crossed a red line on Rafah. This could be why

The Biden administration says Israel hasn’t crossed a red line on Rafah. This could be why

  • PublishedJune 1, 2024

WASHINGTON – Acknowledging only “an uptick” in Israeli military activity, the United States has gone to lengths to avoid any suggestion that Israeli forces have crossed a red line set by President Joe Biden in the deepening offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

In just the past week, Israeli strikes that hit displaced families sheltering in tents drew international condemnation and Israel confirmed that its forces were operating in the city’s center. Still, Biden administration officials say Israel has avoided massive attacks on what had been thickly crowded neighborhoods of Rafah and kept strikes more limited and targeted than earlier in its nearly 8-month-old war with Hamas.

That refrain underscores an increasingly isolated U.S. position.

Critics charge that Biden, who declared early last month that he would not supply offensive weapons if Israel launched an all-out assault on Rafah, has come up against a domestic red line of his own and decided not to cross it: challenging ally Israel, which has support from Republicans and many American voters, in an election year.

Administration officials “keep moving the goalposts when it comes to the Rafah operation, saying, ‘You know, we won’t let the Israelis do X, Y or Z,’” said Colin Clarke, an international security expert and research director at the Soufan Center, a research center. “And then somebody says, ‘Well, aren’t they doing that?’”

“So they’ve been playing semantics around what the Rafah operation constitutes,” he said. “I think if it weren’t an election year, you would see the president being a lot more forceful.”

Administration officials insist Israel has changed its tactics in an effort to reduce civilian deaths as the military sweeps through the city and targets Hamas operatives — even as humanitarian conditions worsen. Some 1 million Palestinians have fled the Rafah offensive and are sheltering in squalid tent camps, and aid is only trickling into the territory. The United Nations estimates as few as 200,000 to 300,000 people still remain.

“We have been clear about what this isn’t, which is not a major military operation,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said Thursday. He referred to Israeli strikes on the outskirts of the city and seizure of an adjoining border region with Egypt as an “uptick.”

Pressed on the question, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that there’s “no mathematical formula” to determining when and if the Rafah assault has gone beyond the conditions set by the Democratic president.

The U.S. would be looking at whether the operation was causing “a lot of death and destruction” or was “more precise and proportional,” Sullivan said.

Unlike earlier in the Israeli drive to cripple Hamas militants in Gaza, Israelis have conveyed their specific battlefield goals and plans for getting there in the Rafah offensive, a senior administration official said Friday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters under ground rules set by the White House, said if those plans change and Israel goes back to earlier tactics, “that might be a different story.”

Israel launched its war in Gaza after attacks by Hamas killed about 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7. More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed since then, many of them women and children. Fighting and Israeli restrictions on aid shipments through border crossings mean nearly all 2.3 million people in Gaza are facing severe hunger. U.N. officials say famine has already started in the north.

It was the Israeli operation against Hamas in Rafah that brought on the strongest warnings from Biden last month about how Israel was conducting the war and that the U.S. could cut its supply of offensive weapons. The population of Rafah had swelled to some 1.3 million as Israeli offensives to the north pushed Palestinian civilians south.

“If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons,” Biden told CNN on May 9. He indicated the red line as being an attack on “population centers” in the city.

At about the same time, U.S. officials confirmed that the administration had suspended a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel to ensure they were not dropped on Rafah.

Republicans’ condemnation of Biden’s move was fast and fierce. Soon after, the chief prosecutor for the world’s top war crimes court sought an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the top U.N. court ordered Israel to cease its operations in Rafah, increasing the political pressure on the U.S. and Israel.

Brian Finucane, a former State Department official who is now a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, notes “changes in tone and tenor” in the administration’s public comments toward Israel from around that time. Biden said the effort for a Netanyahu arrest warrant was “outrageous.”

Administration warnings and threats to Israel over the Rafah campaign ebbed. Biden, un a White House address Friday to urge Hamas to accept an Israeli proposal for a cease-fire and hostage release, made only a passing mention of the operation there, noting widely circulated images of children killed in an Israeli strike last Sunday that burned some of 45 victims alive.

Far more important than whether the U.S. scolds or only echoes Israeli talking points, Finucane said, is “what the administration actually does in terms of policy … to bring about a shift in what’s actually happening on the ground in Gaza.”


Associated Press writers Julia Frankel in Jerusalem and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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