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Israelis agree to consider US concerns about Rafah offensive-joint statement

Smoke rises following an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip

By Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Israeli officials agreed on Monday to take U.S. concerns about a planned offensive in Rafah into account, said a joint statement issued after a virtual meeting with U.S. officials on alternative ways to root out Hamas militants in southern Gaza.

The 2-1/2 hour meeting led by top U.S. and Israeli officials concluded with a plan for follow-up talks in person as early as next week, the statement said.

There was no immediate sign that the U.S. and Israeli negotiators reached any agreement on the path forward in Rafah.

President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to conduct a large-scale offensive in Rafah to avoid more Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza, where Palestinian health authorities say more than 32,000 people have been killed in Israel's assault.

U.S. officials, concerned about a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, have urged Israel to take a more targeted approach to attacking Hamas militants without launching a major ground offensive.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to be deterred from a Rafah offensive as he seeks to eliminate Hamas militants responsible for an Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed by Israel's count.

The joint statement said the two sides had a constructive engagement on Rafah and agreed they shared the objective of seeing Hamas defeated there.

"The U.S. side expressed its concerns with various courses of action in Rafah. The Israeli side agreed to take these concerns into account and to have follow up discussions between experts," the statement said.

A U.S. official said the U.S. side, led by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, his chief deputy Jon Finer and Middle East envoy Brett McGurk, laid out alternative proposals that they said would protect civilians in Rafah.

It will up to Israel to decide what to do, the official said.

An Israeli official in Washington said Israeli participants included strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. They are the same Netanyahu confidants who had been due to attend a Washington meeting last week that the Israeli prime minister canceled.

The Israelis briefed their U.S. counterparts on plans for a ground offensive to destroy Hamas’ last battalions that they say can be carried out in a way that minimizes civilian casualties, said a separate source familiar with the talks.

It was unclear whether the two sides narrowed their differences, the source added.

Netanyahu had called off the planned visit to Washington last week after the U.S. allowed passage of a Gaza ceasefire resolution at the U.N. on March 25, marking a new low in his relations with Biden in the six months of war.

Two days later Israel asked the White House to reschedule a high-level meeting on military plans for Rafah, officials said, in an apparent bid to ease tensions between the two allies.

The U.S. is trying to negotiate a deal for the release of sick, elderly and wounded hostages taken from Israel by Hamas in exchange for a six-week ceasefire. Biden is under election-year pressure at home and abroad to negotiate an immediate ceasefire.

The Biden administration is weighing whether to go ahead with a major $18 billion package of arms transfers to Israel that would involve dozens of F-15 aircraft and munitions, three sources familiar with the matter said on Monday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Howard Goller)