White House warns Israel against ‘smashing’ into Rafah

The White House on Thursday warned Israel against “smashing” into the southern city of Rafah and repeated a threat to withhold certain weapons from Israeli forces in the event of an operation there.

John Kirby, the national security spokesperson at the White House, told reporters that Israel has effectively eliminated military leaders and units of Hamas, a fact he said changed the calculus of how Israeli soldiers should approach the rest of the fighting in Gaza.

Kirby argued that Hamas “didn’t feel and hadn’t suffered the kinds of pressure and the kinds of casualties that they have suffered now” as he underlined why the Biden administration was now withholding some weapons from Israel.

“Through the fighting that they have conducted over the last several months they have decimated many of their units,” Kirby said. “The picture of Hamas today is not what it was six months ago as a result of the pressure that the Israelis have put on it.”

Kirby said a depleted Hamas force meant Israel does not have to conduct a full-scale invasion of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering.

“We believe that they have put an enormous amount of pressure on Hamas, and that there are better ways to go after what is left of Hamas in Rafah than a major ground operation,” Kirby added.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claimed in February that Israeli forces had destroyed almost all of the regional battalions from Hamas and must now move on to Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to carry out the complete destruction of Hamas, has said the militant group is hiding its last battalions in Rafah and that forces must go into the city to defeat them.

Kirby, however, said a major operation in Rafah would not ensure the defeat of Hamas.

“Smashing into Rafah, in [Biden’s] view, will not advance that objective, will not get to that sustainable enduring defeat of Hamas,” he said. “But there are many things that we can do together that will [include] doing everything we can to help Israel make sure that the border between Gaza and Egypt can’t be used for the smuggling of arms and weapons into Hamas. We could also, in fact, help them target the [Hamas] leaders.”

President Biden on Wednesday told CNN that he would withhold offensive weapons from Israel if forces launch a major ground operation in Rafah. His administration is already pausing some 3,500 heavy bombs for Israel, leading to frustration from Republicans and Israeli officials.

Biden is facing major protests at home from progressives, Arab Americans and young adults, including thousands of protesting college students upset over U.S. policy in Gaza, where more than 34,000 people have died in seven months of war.

Biden has largely been supportive of Israel, even as he has tried to bring down the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. But Rafah has long been a concern for the president, and U.S. officials have repeatedly urged Israel in the past few months to discuss other options in the southern city besides a major invasion.

Israel has already moved into Rafah, seizing a border crossing for humanitarian aid this week that connects to Egypt, but has yet to launch a major operation.

When asked why the Biden administration is drawing a line now after Israeli previously invaded other cities in Gaza, Kirby on Thursday repeated that the sheer number of people sheltering in Rafah is “driving” the concerns.

Kirby explained if Israel goes into Rafah in a “big way,” the U.S. will “make other decisions about the kind of support that we are providing Israel.”

“We hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said. “We hope that Israel won’t do that.”

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