White House Says Israel Still Has Provided No Plan to Protect Rafah Civilians

President Biden’s national security adviser said on Monday that while the United States was committed to Israel’s defense, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had still failed to provide the White House with a plan for moving nearly a million Gazans safely out of Rafah before any invasion of the city.

In a lengthy presentation to reporters, the adviser, Jake Sullivan, also said Israel had yet to “connect their military operations” to a political plan for the future governance of the Palestinian territory.

Mr. Sullivan, who has been at the center of the administration’s response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel and its aftermath, described in detail the administration’s objectives in intervening to achieve a cease-fire and a return of hostages, including Americans, still in the hands of Hamas. But beneath repeated expressions of support for Israel, he made clear Mr. Biden’s frustration in dealings with Mr. Netanyahu, after a series of heated conversations between the two men.

Mr. Sullivan insisted that the only weapons Mr. Biden was withholding from the Israelis were 2,000-pound bombs, for fear that the U.S. munitions, which can level whole city blocks, would be employed by Israel in its effort to rout Hamas leaders from their tunnel network, deep under the city.

The United States, he noted, was still sending defensive weapons, and a range of offensive arms that did not run the risk of major civilian casualties.

“We still believe it would be a mistake to launch a major military operation into the heart of Rafah that would put huge numbers of civilians at risk without a clear strategic gain,” Mr. Sullivan said. “The president was clear that he would not supply certain offensive weapons for such an operation, were it to occur.”

But he insisted it “has not yet occurred,” despite heightened bombing around the city, and said the United States was “still working with Israel on a better way to ensure the defeat of Hamas everywhere in Gaza, including in Rafah.”

Nonetheless, House Republicans are planning to push through a bill that would rebuke Mr. Biden for pausing the shipments of the 2,000 pound bombs. It would be a symbolic move — there is no way the bill would pass the Democratic-controlled Senate — but appeared to be part of an effort to turn the arms holdup into an election-year issue; many Democrats had been urging Mr. Biden to suspend or limit arms sales to Israel.

The vote is designed to split Democrats on an issue that has been cleaving the party and serve as another way for Republicans to present themselves as the true friends of Israel.

Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, called Mr. Biden’s arms holdup a “disastrous policy decision” that was also “deliberately hidden from Congress and the American people.”

As recently as eight days ago, the State Department was still arguing that the weapons holdup was a technical matter. But after word leaked out, Mr. Biden himself acknowledged, in an interview on CNN, that he had made the decision.

When Mr. Sullivan said the United States was still working with Israel on a way to deal with terrorists in Rafah, he appeared to be referring to a series of tense interactions with the Israelis about alternatives to a full-scale invasion. Those largely center on targeted counterterrorism operations, similar to how Israel dealt with hunting down the perpetrators of the Munich Olympics terror attack in 1972.

Mr. Sullivan refused to discuss recent reports saying United States intelligence officials suspected that Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s most senior official in Gaza, was no longer in Rafah. But he acknowledged that if Mr. Sinwar had moved his base of operations elsewhere, the attack on the southern city made even less sense.

He was most blistering about Israel’s inability, seven months after the initial terrorist attack, to develop a plan for how Gaza would be administered after the war was over, or how to link their military assaults on Gaza to political objectives.

“We’re talking to Israel about how to connect their military operations to a clear strategic end game, about a holistic, integrated strategy to ensure the lasting defeat of Hamas and a better alternative future for Gaza and for the Palestinian people,” he said.

The failure of Israel’s current approach, he said, was made evident by the fact that areas in the North that were previously bombed have seen a return of Hamas, which ruled over Gaza, if often corruptly, for many years. He suggested the administration feared the same would happen in Rafah and elsewhere unless the military action was linked to a credible plan for Palestinian governance.

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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