Biden speaks with Netanyahu as Israelis appear closer to Rafah offensive

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May 6—WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Monday morning as Israel appeared closer to launching an offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah — a move staunchly opposed by the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.

The White House said Biden underscored U.S. concerns about an invasion of Rafah — where more than 1 million civilians from other parts of Gaza are sheltering after 7 months of war sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Biden also underscored to Netanyahu that he believes reaching a cease-fire with Hamas is the best way to protect the lives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, according to White House officials, who were not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

"The President reiterated his clear position on Rafah," according to a White House summary of the call.

The call comes hours before Biden is to host King Abdullah II of Jordan for a private lunch meeting at the White House on Monday.

On Sunday, Netanyahu rejected international pressure to halt the war in Gaza in a fiery speech marking the country's annual Holocaust memorial day, declaring: "If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone."

"I say to the leaders of the world: No amount of pressure, no decision by any international forum will stop Israel from defending itself," he said, speaking in English. "Never again is now."

The Israeli army ordered about 100,000 Palestinians on Monday to begin evacuating from Rafah, signaling that a ground invasion there could be imminent and further complicating efforts to broker a cease-fire.

Biden, according to the White House, also updated Netanyahu on efforts to secure a hostage deal, including through ongoing talks taking place in Qatar. Netanyahu also told Biden that he would ensure the Kerem Shalom crossing between Gaza and Israel would remain open for humanitarian aid deliveries, according to the White House.

Tensions escalated Sunday when Hamas fired rockets at Israeli troops positioned on the border with Gaza near Israel's main crossing for delivering humanitarian aid, killing four soldiers. Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes on Rafah killed 22 people, including children and two infants, according to a hospital.

Israeli officials last week briefed Biden administration officials on a plan to evacuate Palestinian civilians ahead of a potential operation, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The officials, who were not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity to speak about the sensitive exchange, said that the plan detailed by the Israelis did not change the U.S. administration's view that moving forward with an operation in Rafah would put too many innocent Palestinian civilians at risk.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Monday said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had previously stressed with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that Israel needed a "credible plan" to evacuate those civilians and maintain humanitarian aid. Ryder said Austin had seen "the concepts" from the Israelis on their plan for an operation in Rafah "but nothing detailed at this point."

Israeli officials said those being ordered evacuated would move from parts of Rafah to a nearby Israel-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi, a makeshift camp on the coast.