WILMINGTON—U.S. President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not proceed with a military operation in Rafah without a plan to ensure the safety of the roughly 1 million people sheltering there, the White House said.
President Biden reaffirmed the shared goal of seeing Hamas terrorists defeated and ensuring the long-term security of Israel, but also called for “urgent and specific steps” to increase the throughput and consistency of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians trapped in Gaza, the White House said in a statement.
Aid agencies say an assault on Rafah, located in the southern part of Gaza on the border with Egypt, would be catastrophic. Israel’s military ordered civilians to flee south before previous assaults on Gaza’s cities, but now there is no obvious place to go and aid agencies have said many people could die.
President 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.
The two leaders also discussed ongoing efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages taken by Hamas during the Islamist terrorist group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the White House said.
“The president emphasized the need to capitalize on progress made in the negotiations to secure the release of all hostages as soon as possible,” the White House said.
It added that President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu agreed to remain in close contact.
Hamas-run Aqsa Television on Sunday quoted a senior Hamas leader as saying that any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah will “blow up” the hostage-exchange negotiations.
‘Over the Top’President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu spoke on Sunday for the first time since the U.S. president told reporters on Thursday that Israel’s military response to Hamas had been “over the top,” his most critical comments on the war.
The president, who is spending the weekend at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, spoke with Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday morning, a White House official said.
The Israeli prime minister told the “Fox News Sunday” program earlier on Sunday that he had not talked with President Biden since his “over the top” comment and did not know what the U.S. leader meant by it.
Asked in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” program aired on Sunday how many Israeli hostages held in Gaza are still alive, Mr. Netanyahu said “enough to warrant the kind of efforts that we’re doing.”
Health authorities in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, estimate more than 28,000 Palestinians, have been killed in the region since the conflict began in October.
Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 Israelis and took around 250 hostages back to Gaza in the October assault that triggered the conflict.