Biden pushed Netanyahu not to attack Rafah, US reviewing ceasefire proposal

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By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Monday it was reviewing a response by Hamas to a ceasefire and hostage release deal, and continued to press Israel not to launch a large-scale military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

CIA Director Williams Burns was in the region having discussions on the Hamas response, White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. He declined to provide any details of what had been agreed, saying he did not want to jeopardize any deal.

"We want to get these hostages out, we want to get a ceasefire in place for six weeks, we want to increase humanitarian assistance," Kirby said, adding that reaching an agreement would be the "absolute best outcome."

Kirby said U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for about 30 minutes about Rafah and the hostage and ceasefire proposal, before the Hamas response was received.

He described it as a constructive discussion.

"It wasn't a pressure call, it wasn't about twisting his arm towards a certain set of parameters," Kirby said.

He said Burns was discussing the Hamas response with Israel. "We are at a critical stage right now," he said. "It wasn't like we had a heads up about it."

Kirby told reporters Biden reiterated his clear position to Netanyahu that the United States does "not support ground operations in Rafah," adding that Israel should not proceed with an invasion plan unless it shows how to protect hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians there.

One U.S. official said Israel was not negotiating in good faith. "Netanyahu and the war cabinet have not appeared to approach the latest phase of negotiations (with Hamas) in good faith,” the official told Reuters.

Biden's call with Netanyahu came hours after Israel told Palestinians to evacuate parts of Rafah.

The evacuation order sparked fears of a full-blown assault in Rafah, long threatened by Israel, against holdouts of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, seven months after Hamas killed 1,200 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7 and took 252 hostages, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel's massive retaliation in response has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, health officials in the Hamas-ruled enclave say, and reduced much of Gaza to rubble.

"President Biden updated the prime minister on efforts to secure a hostage deal, including through ongoing talks today in Doha, Qatar. The Prime Minister agreed to ensure the Kerem Shalom crossing is open for humanitarian assistance for those in need," the White House said.

The Kerem Shalom crossing, located in southern Gaza near Rafah, was shut after four Israeli soldiers were killed nearby on Sunday in a rocket attack claimed by Hamas.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; additional reporting by Ismail Shakil and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Susan Heavey, Heather Timmons, Bill Berkrot, Peter Graff)