WASHINGTON, Feb 12 — President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday that a military operation in the overcrowded city of Rafah in southern Gaza should not proceed unless a plan for “ensuring the safety” of the population was laid out first, the White House said.

Rafah, on the border with Egypt, has remained the last refuge for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s relentless bombardment elsewhere in the Gaza Strip in its four-month war against Hamas, triggered by the group’s October 7 attack.

The United States, UN and foreign governments have voiced deep concern over Netanyahu’s plans to invade the city, where some 1.4 million people have crowded, with many living in tents amid increasingly scarce supplies of food, water and medicine.

Biden “reaffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there,” the White House said in a readout of the two leaders’ Sunday morning call.

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Netanyahu, in extracts of an interview published Saturday evening, insisted the Rafah operation would go ahead “while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave”.

When pressed about where the population was supposed to go, Netanyahu said in the interview aired Sunday: “You know, the areas that we’ve cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there. But, we are working out a detailed plan.”

Not entering Rafah and confronting holdout Hamas battalions would amount to losing the war, the prime minister said.

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Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

“The President reaffirmed our shared goal to see Hamas defeated and to ensure the long-term security of Israel and its people,” the White House statement said.

“He also called for urgent and specific steps to increase the throughput and consistency of humanitarian assistance to innocent Palestinian civilians,” it added.

The Sunday morning call is the first announced contact between Biden and Netanyahu since the US president said he viewed Israel’s military campaign in Gaza as being “over the top”.

“There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble, dying, and it’s got to stop,” Biden told reporters on Thursday, in comments widely perceived as a harshening of his tone against Israel.

The health ministry in Gaza says the massive Israeli offensive since October 7 has killed at least 28,064 people, mostly women and children. — AFP