US, Israeli officials meet virtually on Rafah

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Senior U.S. and Israeli officials held a virtual meeting on Monday to discuss the Biden administration’s alternative proposals to an Israeli military invasion of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip opposed by Washington.

A U.S. official said the meeting had been completed and a written statement about it was expected later.

President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to conduct a large-scale offensive in Rafah to avoid more civilian casualties among the Palestinian population in Gaza, where Palestinian health authorities say more than 32,000 people have been killed.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the United States has made its concerns known about any major ground operation in Rafah, the last relatively safe haven for more than 1 million displaced Palestinian civilians.

“If they are going to move forward with a military operation, we have to have this conversation,” Jean-Pierre said at a briefing. “We have to understand how they’re going to move forward.”

She told reporters national security adviser Jake Sullivan would lead the discussions on the U.S. side.

An Israeli official in Washington said Israeli participants included strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. They are the same confidants of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who had been due to attend a Washington meeting last week that Netanyahu canceled.

While a U.S. official has said an in-person follow-up meeting would be held “following additional work by expert teams,” the Israeli official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to confirm that.

Netanyahu called off the planned visit to Washington last week after the U.S. allowed passage of a Gaza ceasefire resolution at the U.N. on March 25, marking a new low in his relations with President Joe Biden in the six months of war.

Two days later Israel asked the White House to reschedule a high-level meeting on military plans for Rafah, officials said, in an apparent bid to ease tensions between the two allies.

The United States, concerned about a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, wants Israel to consider alternatives to a ground invasion.

Israel’s retaliation began after an Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas militants breached the Israeli border to kill 1,200 people and take 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

The offensive has decimated parts of the small coastal enclave, including hits on hospitals and infrastructure, and has created severe food shortages among the largely displaced population.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Chizu Nomiyama, Alexandra Hudson)


Close Bitnami banner