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Rafah on agenda when Blinken meets Israel Defense Minister Gallant

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Tel Aviv

By Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will likely discuss U.S. concerns over Israel's planned military operation in Rafah with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday, the State Department said.

But Blinken would not be presenting Washington's alternative plans for a military operation in the southern Gaza city after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a separate U.S.-Israeli meeting on the issue, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Miller told reporters it was "surprising and unfortunate" that Netanyahu decided an Israeli delegation would not be making the trip after the U.S. abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote on Monday demanding a ceasefire.

The U.N. resolution also demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.

Miller said Israel's planned assault on Rafah would be a mistake and would weaken Israel's security. Rafah is the last refuge for about half of Gaza's 2.3 million population, many of them displaced by fighting elsewhere.

Rafah will be the subject of conversations in Blinken's meetings with Gallant and other Israeli officials on Monday and Tuesday, but a detailed presentation on concerns was not part of the plan for the meeting with Gallant.

"I am sure we will find other ways to make our concerns known to the government of Israel at very senior levels, but I don't have anything to announce with respect to that today," Miller said.

The U.N. Security Council demanded an immediate ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Monday as Israeli forces carried out new airstrikes in Gaza and laid siege to two hospitals.

After vetoing three earlier draft resolutions on the war in the Gaza Strip, the United States abstained following global pressure for a ceasefire to ease fears of famine after nearly six months of war.

Netanyahu, whose relationship with Washington has been strained by the ferocity of Israel's offensive in Gaza, said following the U.N. vote that he would not now follow through on plans to send a delegation to Washington on Rafah.

Miller said Blinken held discussions on Rafah last week in Tel Aviv with Netanyahu and Israel's war cabinet and laid out very serious concerns.

"When we met with them in Israel on Friday, they made clear that they did want to see the options, the alternatives that the United States, was going to present," he said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Ismail Shakil and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller)