'We Will Do It Alone': Netanyahu Says Israel Will Push Into Rafah Without Biden's Support

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters)
March 22, 2024

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken on Friday that Israel is prepared to continue its war against Hamas alone by launching an offensive into Rafah, amid tense relations between the two allies over the six-month-old Gaza conflict.

Blinken met one-on-one with Netanyahu in talks aimed at ensuring more food flows into Gaza, Blinken's sixth diplomatic swing through the Middle East since the war began on Oct. 7.

Netanyahu said he told Blinken he appreciated U.S. support in its fight against Hamas and that Israel recognizes it needs to protect civilians. However, he reiterated plans to push into Rafah, against the territory's southern border fence, where more than a million Gazans have taken refuge in makeshift shelters.

"I also said that we have no way to defeat Hamas without going into Rafah and eliminating the rest of the battalions there. And I told him that I hope we will do it with the support of the U.S., but if we have to—we will do it alone," Netanyahu said in a video statement to reporters.

Israel says Rafah is the last bastion for Hamas militants, and that it has a plan to evacuate civilians before an attack. Washington says a ground assault would be a "mistake" and cause too much harm to those displaced there.

In Gaza, Israel claimed on Friday to have killed or captured hundreds of Hamas fighters in a five-day operation at the Al Shifa hospital complex, one of the only medical facilities even partially functioning in the north. Hamas and medical staff deny fighters were present there.

A strain in ties between the United States and Israel has increasingly become public, with President Joe Biden calling Israel's campaign in Gaza "over the top" and saying it has had too great a toll on civilian lives.

The war was triggered by a raid into southern Israel by Hamas terrorists who killed 1,200 and took 253 hostages, by Israeli tallies. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in the subsequent Israeli bombardments, with many more feared dead under the rubble, Gaza's Hamas-run health authorities say.

Prior to the meeting, Blinken had said he would push Netanyahu to take urgent steps to allow more aid into the densely populated enclave, where mass death from famine is imminent, according to the United Nations.

U.S. officials say the number of aid deliveries via land needs to increase fast and that aid needs to be sustained over a long period.

"A hundred percent of the population of Gaza is experiencing severe levels of acute food insecurity. We cannot, we must not allow that to continue," Blinken told a news conference late on Thursday.

A report this week by the hunger monitor relied on by the United Nations found all Gazans were experiencing severe food shortages, for half the population at the worst of five levels or "catastrophe," and that famine accompanied by mass death was imminent without urgent changes.

Israel, which inspects all shipments to Gaza and has sealed off the fence on the north of the enclave, denies restricting food and says it believes enough is getting through.

"As much as we know, by our analysis, there is no starvation in Gaza. There is a sufficient amount of food entering Gaza every day," Colonel Moshe Tetro, head of Israel's Coordination and Liasion Administration for Gaza, told reporters.

Last week, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) called Netanyahu an obstacle to peace and said Israelis should vote him out. Biden called it a "good speech;" Netanyahu called it "inappropriate" and later held a video conference with lawmakers from Biden's Republican opposition.

Senior Israeli and U.S. officials are scheduled to meet in Washington next week, when the United States will present to the Israelis alternative ways to hunt down Hamas without resorting to a full-on assault in Rafah.

Meetings are also taking place in Doha on Friday aimed at securing a ceasefire in the conflict.

The Qatar truce talks are focused on a proposal for a six-week halt to fighting during which some 40 Israeli hostages being held by Hamas would be released, in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Israel, however, is only prepared to commit to a temporary pause to the conflict and has repeatedly said it will push on with its campaign to achieve its aim of eradicating Hamas, which controls Gaza. Hamas wants a permanent end to the war and for Israeli troops to withdraw.

Blinken on Thursday said the gaps were narrowing.

In Gaza, fighting has been concentrated in recent days on the Al Shifa hospital complex, which is also sheltering hundreds of people displaced from their homes.

Israeli troops entered the facility on Monday and have been combing through the sprawling complex, which they say is connected to a tunnel network used by Hamas.

Israel said it had killed hundreds of fighters and detained more than 500 suspects in its operation on Al Shifa, including 358 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It said three senior Islamic Jihad military commanders and two Hamas officials responsible for operations in the occupied West Bank were detained, as well as other Hamas internal security officials.

Hamas denies its fighters were in the compound and says those killed there were civilians and those rounded up include medical staff.

Israel issued pictures of faces of hundreds of men it said were fighters captured in the hospital, then later acknowledged that some were not captives. Ismail Al-Thawabta, director of the Hamas-run government media office, said the release of the mistaken photos reflected Israel's "crisis and failure."