May 7, 2024 - World

Israel hasn't crossed "red line" with current Rafah operation, U.S. officials say

Displaced Palestinians who left with their belongings from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following an evacuation order by the Israeli army, arrive to Khan Yunis on May 6, 2024,

Displaced Palestinians who left with their belongings from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following an evacuation order by the Israeli army arrive to Khan Yunis on May 6, 2024. Photo: /AFP via Getty Images

The White House thinks the Israeli operation to capture the Rafah crossing doesn't cross President Biden's "red line" that could lead to a shift in U.S. policy towards the Gaza war, two U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has expressed deep concern about the possibility of a major Israeli military invasion in the southern Gaza city where more than one million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week that "a major operation" in Rafah will harm U.S.-Israeli relations.
  • White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said at a Financial Times conference in Washington on Saturday that the Biden administration made clear to Israel that the way it conducts an operation in Rafah will influence U.S. policy towards the Gaza war.

The Biden administration has been considering suspending weapons shipments to Israel or conditioning the use of specific U.S. weapons systems if it goes on a major operation in Rafah, U.S. officials said.

  • The Biden administration last week put a hold on a shipment of U.S.-made ammunition to  Israel, Axios first reported.
  • It was the first time since the Oct. 7 attack that the U.S. stopped a weapons shipment intended for the Israeli military and Israeli officials saw it as a warning signal from the White House.

Driving the news: On Monday, the IDF started a limited operation in eastern Rafah and captured the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

  • Ahead of the operation, the IDF started evacuating Palestinian civilians from four neighborhoods in eastern Rafah that are close to the crossing.

Behind the scenes: Israeli and U.S. officials said the operation at the Rafah crossing came up during a phone call between Biden and Netanyahu on Monday.

  • "Biden didn't pull the hand break on the capture of the Rafah crossing during the call", a senior Israeli official said.
  • White House spokesman John Kirby said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday that Biden's message to Netanyahu during the call was focused on his opposition to a major ground operation in Rafah that would put many civilian lives at risk.
  • He said Israel told the U.S. the operation in the Rafah crossing is limited in scope and time and is aimed at preventing Hamas from smuggling weapons through the border with Egypt.
  • "They didn't describe it as a major ground operation," Kirby said.
  • Biden stressed in his call with Netanyahu that the U.S. will follow the operation to see that this is the case, he added.
  • Kirby said the administration's main focus is on Israel reopening the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza and the Rafah crossing as soon as possible so that desperately needed aid can flow into Gaza.

Between the lines: Two senior U.S. officials said the Israelis also made clear they wanted to capture the Rafah crossing in order to put pressure on Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in the hostage talks.

  • Israel says the Rafah crossing is a strategic site for Hamas because it can control aid trucks coming from Egypt, collect taxes and signal it is still the ruler of Gaza.

What to watch: The two U.S. officials said Biden doesn't see the current Israeli operation as "a breaking point" in relations with Israel.

  • But they warned that if it broadens or gets out of control and Israeli forces go into the city of Rafah itself, it will be a breaking point.
  • One U.S. official said Biden is approaching this the same way he approached the Israeli retaliation against the Iran attack — pressing Israel not to do it, then accepting something limited.
  • "If this is all they are going to do we can absorb that, but there is a lot of nervousness about what's next," the official said.
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