Biden presses Netanyahu on plans to release hostages, protect civilians in Rafah

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President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Sunday for the first time in more than three weeks, amid growing concerns over Israel’s plans to launch a major military campaign in Rafah, where an estimated 1.4 million civilians are taking refuge from ongoing fighting across much of Gaza. .

Much of the 45-minute conversation focused on a proposal for an extended humanitarian pause in the Israel-Hamas war that would allow the release of hostages still held by the militant group, according to a senior administration official.

The protection of civilians in Gaza “is a constant conversation between us and the Israelis,” even as Biden shares Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas, the official said, briefing reporters. on condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

“It is a big question how the citizens would be freed from the Israeli offensive in the southernmost city of Gaza,” said the official. Most of those in Rafah have moved there to avoid fighting elsewhere in the enclave.They live in makeshift shelters and are almost entirely supported by the humanitarian aid that is allowed to move through the Egyptian border.

“The president and the Prime Minister had very detailed information back and forth. I think our position has been very clear,” the official said. The United States would not support such an operation unless Israel had a plan for civilian protection and sustenance “that was actually designed, prepared and implemented.”

In his strongest public statement to date, Biden told reporters on Thursday that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which local health officials said has caused nearly 28,000 deaths, has been “over the top . Sunday’s conversation was the first between the two leaders since January 19.

Hours before his phone call with Biden, Netanyahu told ABC’s “This Week” that Israel was “doing everything we can to minimize civilian casualties.” But one thing we’re not going to do is we’re not going to let Hamas emerge victorious.”

Asked how and where Israel proposed to take care and move more than a million people to safety from Rafah, Netanyahu indicated “the areas that we have cleared, north of Rafah – there are enough areas. But we are preparing a detailed plan to do that.”

“Those who say that we should not enter Rafah under any circumstances are saying, to lose the war. Keep Hamas there,” Netanyahu said. Israel has said that senior Hamas leaders have moved their operations to southern Gaza to escape Israeli attacks.

The phone call between the leaders came ahead of CIA Director William J. Burns’ trip to Cairo on Tuesday to continue talks with Egypt and Qatar on implementing a framework proposal for a ceasefire to allow release hostages that Hamas is still holding inside. Gaza. The proposal, which was tabled two weeks ago by both sides in the conflict, calls for a six-week ceasefire that would allow civilian hostages to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners who have been stick with Israel and dramatically increase humanitarian aid.

The United States hopes that the initial freeze will trigger a move for an extension that would allow the release of all hostages, including Israeli soldiers and the bodies of more than two dozen about 1,200 people were killed by Hamas fighters who attacked in the south. Israel on October 7, giving impetus to the current war.

“The framework is largely in place,” said the senior administration official. “There are certainly gaps that need to be closed. Some of them are important. But there has been real progress over the last few weeks and we are now trying to do everything we can to take advantage of it.”

Hamas’ response to the proposal, sent to negotiators last week, called for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including some with long sentences for serious crimes. They also demanded that Israel withdraw all its troops from Gaza before talks on a second phase of liberation could begin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Tel Aviv at the time, called some of Hamas’s demands “non-starters,” but said the response provided “room” to work with.

Despite Netanyahu negative public response to the proposal, “the framework is not rejected,” said the chief executive. “There are gaps that need to be closed and some of the differences are important. But compared to the where we were a month ago, until now, there has been great progress.”

Sketching the paradoxical relationship between Israel’s potential ground offensive in Rafah and the prospect of a cease-fire, the official said, “You won’t get a hostilities deal unless Hamas is under a lot of pressure.” … It’s something the Israelis tell us all the time. It’s something we agree with. “

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