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White House says Rafah strike does not violate Biden’s warnings to Israel

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, speaks with reporters Tuesday during a daily briefing at the White House in Washington.  (HAIYUN JIANG)
By Yasmeen Abutaleb,John Hudson and Missy Ryan Washington Post

The White House said Tuesday that Israel had not violated President Biden’s warnings on the conduct of its military campaign in Rafah after an airstrike there over the weekend killed at least 45 Palestinians and injured hundreds more, suggesting the United States would impose no consequences for the Israeli action.

The airstrike on a makeshift tent encampment caused a fire to break out in the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah, a city in southern Gaza, creating one of the most horrifying scenes of the war in the Palestinian enclave. Images of charred bodies and videos of parents burning alive as their children screamed for help ricocheted across social media, prompting renewed global outrage and growing calls for Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah.

Several Biden officials, including Vice President Harris, lamented the “heartbreaking” and “tragic” scenes and loss of life. But they said the mass-casualty event did not cross the “red line” Biden announced this month, when he said the United States would suspend delivery of offensive weapons to Israel if it went into “population centers” in Rafah.

White House spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that Israel had not started a “major ground operation” in the city. State Department spokesman Matt Miller added that Israel had not launched the type of offensive that it carried out in the cities of Gaza City and Khan Younis, where airstrikes leveled entire buildings and hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed a day.

“We still don’t believe that a major ground operation in Rafah is warranted. We still don’t want to see the Israelis, as we say, smash into Rafah with large units over large pieces of territory,” Kirby said. The weekend tragedy, he said, “speaks very clearly to the challenge of military airstrikes in densely populated areas of Gaza, including Rafah, because of the risk of civilian casualties, which of course happened terribly in this case, a horrible loss of life.”

He noted that Israel said it used 37-pound bombs in the attack, aimed at killing Hamas officials it said were holed up in the city. “A 37-pound bomb is not a big bomb,” he said. “If it is in fact what they used, it is indicative of an effort to be precise and targeted.”

Kirby and other officials pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments on Monday that the civilian casualties were a “tragic mistake” and said they would wait for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to release the results of an investigation into what went wrong. The IDF said two Hamas militants were killed in the attack, including the commander of Hamas operations in the West Bank.

Some experts and Democratic lawmakers said Israel’s airstrike – along with reports of Israeli tanks rolling into the center of Rafah on Tuesday – had clearly crossed Biden’s red line and urged the president to respond accordingly.

“The escalating civilian death toll and deepening humanitarian catastrophe make clear that the Biden administration should pause additional offensive military assistance to the Netanyahu government until we know that all the president’s requests, including with respect to Rafah and the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance, will be respected,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement to The Washington Post.

He added, “A partnership should be a two-way street, not a one-way blank check.”

The Biden administration spent several weeks over the spring meeting with Israeli officials in an effort to convince the country to conduct targeted raids and strikes in Rafah rather than mounting a full-scale ground invasion. U.S. officials expressed concern about the consequences of conducting a major operation in Rafah when some 1.3 million Palestinians were sheltering there under Israeli orders, most of whom had relocated several times throughout the nearly eight-month war and were living in decrepit conditions.

As part of those discussions, U.S. officials told their Israeli counterparts that hey could not simply relocate hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Rafah to other parts of Gaza without setting up basic infrastructure, including tents, and providing such necessities as food and water. But since Israel started its military campaign in the city several weeks ago, about 1 million Palestinians have left Rafah without such provisions, while both Israel and Egypt have sharply limited aid coming into Gaza.

As the Israeli invasion of Rafah neared, Biden and his top aides were especially trying to avoid the images of mass death and destruction that have defined much of the war and ignited anger in many parts of the world as well as in the United States. The president has encountered increasing political challenges because of his staunch support of Israel and the growing Palestinian civilian death toll, and he now faces protesters at nearly all his public events.

Israel launched its assault in Gaza after Hamas militants broke through the Israel-Gaza border Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking some 250 others hostage. In response, Israel launched a ferocious military campaign in Gaza that has so far killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. An Israeli siege of the enclave has caused the health system to collapse and created a humanitarian catastrophe that has put nearly all its residents at risk of famine and disease.

Biden issued several sharp warnings to Israel as it prepared to go into Rafah to demolish what it said were remaining Hamas battalions. During an interview in March, when he was asked whether an invasion of Rafah would be a “red line” with his relationship with Netanyahu, Biden replied that it would but added, “I’m never going to leave Israel.”

In an interview with CNN this month, Biden said he would not supply the weapons – including controversial 2,000-pound bombs – that Israel had used in its military operations in key cities in Gaza.

“I’ve made it clear to Bibi and the [Israeli] war cabinet they’re not going to get our support if in fact they go into these population centers,” Biden said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “We’re not walking away from Israel’s security – we’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.”

Critics of Biden’s handling of the Gaza war, including some Democrats, however, said he has delivered inconsistent messages about the potential American response to Israel’s actions and has not imposed meaningful consequences on Netanyahu.

“Our response has apparently been to move the red line back so that anything short of the thousands of civilian deaths we saw in Khan Younis and Gaza City won’t cross it,” said Frank Lowenstein, a former State Department official who worked on the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on Middle East issues in several administrations, noted that other nations are issuing growing calls for action against Israel, leaving the United States increasingly isolated.

Days before the deadly airstrike, the International Court of Justice, an arm of the United Nations, urged Israel to immediately halt its operations in Rafah – an order that is unenforceable but is supported by several U.S. allies.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that he was “outraged” by the airstrike in Rafah and that Israel’s operations “must stop,” adding that there needed to be “full respect for international law and an immediate cease-fire.”

Norway, Ireland and Spain last week announced formal recognition of a Palestinian state, an effort to send a signal of deep displeasure with Netanyahu’s conduct of the war.

“The red line has been crossed, and it’s being crossed again as we speak. Despite the horrific airstrike, which should have been a wake-up call to stop this offensive, it’s going forward,” Riedel said. “The U.S. is looking increasingly like it’s out of step with the rest of the world community, and that’s not a place where Joe Biden wants to be.”

To some detractors, Biden’s reluctance to impose consequences on Israel echoed President Barack Obama’s decision not to take more forceful action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his country’s civil war. Obama warned Syria in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons would prompt a major U.S. reaction, but when evidence emerged Assad had used chemical weapons that killed about 1,500 people, he did not order a significant military response.

The White House’s message on the strike – that it was a tragedy but did not violate Biden’s warnings against a full-scale invasion of Rafah – was echoed elsewhere in the administration.

Miller, the State Department spokesman, said the United States was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in Rafah” but that it would not prompt Biden to restrict military support for Israel. “Those images were heartbreaking, and I know the pain that those families are suffering through must be unimaginable, especially those who’ve lost children and those who have lost family members a repeated number of times,” Miller told reporters.

But he added, “With respect to Rafah, we do not want to see major military operations take place there … the way that we saw them take place in Khan Younis and in Gaza City. At this point, we have not seen a military operation on the scale of those previous operations.”

Sabrina Singh, a Defense Department spokesperson, said that Pentagon leaders were closely tracking the deadly incident and that U.S. officials had been speaking with their Israeli counterparts “to figure out and determine what exactly happened.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has seen the “devastating imagery” of the strike, she said, adding that she did not know whether Israel had used U.S.-provided munitions in its attack.

Tommy Vietor, co-host of “Pod Save America” and a former Obama official, said presidential administrations often become wrapped up in semantic debates over whether certain incidents constitute “major” military action. But he said the continued American defense of Israel in the face of rising global pressure gives adversaries, including Russia and China, an opening to accuse the United States of hypocrisy when Washington criticizes other countries’ human rights violations.

“At the end of the day, if civilians are getting killed in airstrikes and through fires and if people are getting displaced for the fifth, sixth, seventh time, what’s the difference?” Vietor said. “The human suffering doesn’t change based on how you describe it. I think sometimes those semantic debates miss the bigger point, which is that this war is a humanitarian catastrophe. Every single country in the world seems to recognize that except for us.”