Israel has briefed US on plan to evacuate Palestinian civilians ahead of potential Rafah operation

WASHINGTON — Israel briefed Biden administration officials this week on a plan to evacuate Palestinian civilians ahead of a possible operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah aimed at rooting out Hamas militants, according to US officials familiar with the talks .

The officials, who were not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity to speak about the sensitive exchange, said the plan drawn up by the Israelis did not change the U.S. government’s view that continuing an operation in Rafah would be too would cause many innocent Palestinian civilians. at risk.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to carry out a military operation in Rafah, despite warnings from President Joe Biden and other Western officials that it would result in more civilian deaths and worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis.

The Biden administration has said there could be consequences for Israel if the country goes ahead with the operation without a credible plan to protect civilians.

About 1.5 million Palestinians have taken shelter in the southern city of Gaza as the area has been ravaged by the war that began on October 7 after Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostages.

The United Nations humanitarian agency said Friday that hundreds of thousands of people are “at immediate risk of death” if Israel continues its attack on Rafah. The border town is a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid and is full of displaced Palestinians, many in tightly packed tent camps.

The officials added that the evacuation plan the Israelis had briefed had not yet been finalized and that both sides agreed to continue discussing the issue.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday that no “comprehensive” plan for a possible Rafah operation had been revealed to the White House by the Israelis. However, the operation has been discussed during recent phone calls between Biden and Netanyahu, as well as during recent virtual conversations with top Israeli and US national security officials.

“We want to ensure that these conversations continue because it is important to protect those Palestinian lives – those innocent lives,” Jean-Pierre said.

The revelation of Israel’s continued push to carry out a Rafah operation came as CIA Director William Burns arrived Friday in Egypt, where negotiators are trying to seal a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas is considering the latest proposal for a ceasefire and the release of hostages, put forward by American, Egyptian and Qatari mediators who want to prevent the Rafah operation.

They have publicly pressured Hamas to accept the terms of the deal that would lead to an extended ceasefire and an exchange of Israeli hostages captured on October 7 and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.

Hamas has said it will send a delegation to Cairo in the coming days for further discussions on the offer, but has not specified when.

Israel and its allies have tried to increase pressure on Hamas in the hostage negotiations. Signaling that Israel continues to move forward with its plans for a Rafah operation could be a tactic to push the militants to finalize the deal.

Netanyahu said earlier this week that Israeli forces would invade Rafah, which Israel says is Hamas’s last stronghold, regardless of whether a hostage truce is brokered. His comments appeared aimed at appeasing his nationalist governing partners, and it was not clear whether they would have any influence on any new deal with Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region, including Israel, this week and called the latest proposal “extremely generous” and said “the time to act is now.”