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Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip.
Palestinians in the north of Gaza were told to flee to southern cities on the strip in October. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) Hatem Moussa/AP

Biden Pushes for a Cease-Fire in Gaza. Israel Pushes Forward Military Operation in Rafah.

The Biden administration says it does not support a full-scale invasion of Rafah. What’s less clear is what it will do if Israel goes ahead with one anyway.

The Biden administration says it has clearly communicated that it will not support a full-scale Israeli military operation in the Gazan city of Rafah. Now, with temporary cease-fire negotiations in the balance, Israel Defense Forces are pushing right up against President Joe Biden’s line.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a press briefing Monday that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, knows exactly what the United States would find unacceptable.

“We don’t want to see operations in and around Rafah that make it harder for the people seeking refuge there and shelter to be safe and secure,” Kirby said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s missiles or rockets, things that kill innocent people aren’t OK.”

The IDF has announced it is “currently conducting targeted strikes against Hamas” in Rafah. These strikes come as the Israeli War Cabinet also says that they plan to go forward with a ground invasion of the region.

While the IDF claims to be specifically targeting Hamas, the extent of their operations remains unclear. Israel’s recent air raids on Rafah killed mostly children, per local health officials.

Palestinian women and children make up the vast majority of the 34,000 casualties in Gaza, and the United States has acknowledged a deepening humanitarian crisis in the region, including famine.

“We’re aware they’re dropping leaflets; we’re aware that they’re warning people to evacuate,” Kirby said. More than 1 million displaced Palestinians are currently sheltering in the southernmost city of Rafah with virtually nowhere else to go.

The administration has admonished Israel in recent weeks for failing to protect civilians in Gaza, calling on Netanyahu to increase humanitarian aid. Mike Miller, the spokesperson for the State Department, said in discussions with Israel, the United States laid out specific types of military operations it would see as “acceptable” in Rafah. The administration has not publicly said what it considers to be a full-scale invasion of the southern city in Gaza.

Lawmakers have questioned Israel’s ability to prevent civilian casualties in Rafah, even with advanced notice. Netanyahu “claims he can move over a million people in two weeks to a safe space,” Rep. Mikie Sherrill said after a trip to the region in February. “It’s just ... it’s hard to believe that that will be as easy as he presented it.”

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Since then, more civilian infrastructure has been demolished, forcing humanitarian organizations to set up temporary shelters and tent hospitals near Rafah for roughly half of Gaza’s population. Israel advised civilians to evacuate the city this week.

It’s unclear what the United States will do if Israel pushes forward with a full-scale operation.

Some lawmakers have called on Biden to implement the Leahy law, a bureaucratic measure meant to stop the United States from supporting “gross violations of human rights.”

Last week, 88 House lawmakers, led by Reps. Chris Deluzio and Jason Crow, who are both combat veterans, signed a letter to Biden asking him to review any additional offensive weapon shipments to Israel, calling its efforts to mitigate humanitarian catastrophe insufficient.

“The security assistance included in the recently passed security supplemental should not be interpreted as a blank check or as implicit approval of the Netanyahu government’s actions,” the letter said. “Your administration retains the ability per U.S. law and NSM-20 to suspend certain transfers should it find the Netanyahu government is violating U.S. laws and policies.”

Hamas reportedly agreed to a cease-fire on Monday, with negotiations underway in Cairo, Egypt. It’s unclear what the parameters of that agreement are. Kirby confirmed that CIA Director Bill Burns was currently reviewing the Hamas response in Gaza and discussing it with Israeli leadership.

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.