Biden Warns Netanyahu Against Major Rafah Offensive As Divide Between The 2 Leaders Grows

President Joe Biden speaks during a State Dinner at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 2, 2024, to honor the 2024 National Teacher of the Year and other teachers from across the United States. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
President Joe Biden speaks during a State Dinner at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 2, 2024, to honor the 2024 National Teacher of the Year and other teachers from across the United States. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
View All (4)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday urgently warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against launching an offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah as the divide between the two leaders continues to grow along with the mounting Palestinian death toll.

The call between Biden and Netanyahu came as Israel appeared to be moving closer to a major military operation to root out Hamas militants in Rafah — something that Biden and his top aides have repeatedly told Israeli officials will only lead to more death and worsen the despair in the war-ravaged territory.

Both leaders are facing growing public pressure — Biden from protests on college campuses and Netanyahu from the families of some Israeli hostages — for a cease-fire deal.

“The president doesn’t want to see operations in Rafah that put at greater risk the more than a million people that are seeking refuge there,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

The White House described the leaders' 30-minute conversation as “constructive." Privately, however, administration officials' concern was mounting as Israel on Monday ordered about 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from Rafah and began carrying out “targeted” strikes in the eastern part of the city.

White House officials were carefully watching the unfolding, intensified Israeli action in Rafah with deep worry, but did not believe it amounted to the widescale attack Netanyahu has been threatening, according to a person familiar with administration thinking who was not authorized to comment publicly.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war that started after Hamas launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200. Some 250 people were also taken hostage in the brazen attack.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating in huge swaths of Gaza. The head of the United Nations World Food Program, Cindy McCain, said Sunday that northern Gaza has entered “full-blown famine” after nearly seven months of war.

Ahead of the leaders' call, Israel announced it was ordering Palestinians to begin evacuating from Rafah. Soon after the order, Hamas said in a statement it has accepted an Egyptian-Qatari proposal for a cease-fire.

Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israel would continue its operations in Gaza as officials deliberate the cease-fire proposal approved by Hamas. And the Israeli War Cabinet voted unanimously to approve a Rafah military operation but said it would continue cease-fire efforts.

The new targeted strikes in eastern Rafah appeared aimed at keeping the pressure on Hamas as talks continue.

Kirby said Biden had been briefed on Hamas' response that it would accept a hostage deal. CIA Director William Burns, who was in Qatar for hostage talks with regional officials, was discussing the Hamas statement with allies in the region. Kirby declined to discuss the parameters of what Hamas is saying it has agreed to.

“Bill Burns is looking at that response. He’s talking to the Israelis about it," Kirby told reporters. “And we’ll see where this goes. Hopefully, it can lead to those hostages getting out real, real soon.”

In recent days, Egyptian and Hamas officials have said the cease-fire would take place in a series of stages during which Hamas would release hostages it is holding in exchange for Israeli troop pullbacks from Gaza.

Biden also told Netanyahu he still believes reaching a cease-fire with Hamas is the best way to protect the lives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, officials said. Israel says Hamas is holding about 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others in Gaza. The leaders' call occurred before Hamas announced it had accepted a cease-fire proposal.

Following his call with Netanyahu, Biden hosted King Abdullah II of Jordan for a private lunch meeting at the White House for talks on the war and hostage talks. Jordan's embassy in Washington said in a posting on the social media site X after the meeting that Abdullah warned that an Israeli operation on Rafah “threatens to lead to a new massacre.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu rejected international pressure to halt the war in Gaza in a fiery speech marking the country’s annual Holocaust memorial day, declaring, “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”

“I say to the leaders of the world: No amount of pressure, no decision by any international forum will stop Israel from defending itself,” he said, speaking in English. “Never again is now.”

In their phone call, Netanyahu told Biden he would ensure the Kerem Shalom crossing between Gaza and Israel would remain open for humanitarian aid deliveries, according to the White House.

Israeli officials last week briefed Biden administration officials on a plan to evacuate Palestinian civilians ahead of a potential operation, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had previously stressed with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that Israel needed a “credible plan” to evacuate those civilians and maintain humanitarian aid. Ryder said Austin had seen “the concepts” from the Israelis on their plan for an operation in Rafah “but nothing detailed at this point.”


AP writers Tara Copp in Washington and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed reporting.