World

Biden warns Israel over possible military operation in Rafah

The US president said Israel needed a ‘credible’ plan on protecting civilians before moving into the densely populated border town.

Palestinians walk by a residential building destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Destroyed buildings in Rafah Palestinians walk by a residential building destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah (AP Photo/Hatem Ali) (Hatem Ali/AP)

Israel should not go ahead with a military operation in the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah without a “credible” plan to protect civilians, President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, the White House said.

They spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if Israeli troops are sent into Rafah, where Egypt fears fighting could force the closure of the besieged territory’s main aid supply route.

The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century, came after Mr Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

He asserted that Hamas still has four battalions there.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
APTOPIX Israel Palestinians Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair) (Fatima Shbair/AP)

More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and they are packed into sprawling tent camps and UN-run shelters near the border.

Egypt fears a mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Mr Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday that there is “plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to” after Israel’s offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees with “flyers, with (mobile) phones and with safe corridors and other things”.

The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close US allies, took shape as aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, where about 80% of residents have fled their homes and where the UN says a quarter of the population faces starvation.

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering Gaza’s badly needed food and medical supplies.

Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar aimed at achieving a ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages.

Mr Biden last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top”.