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Israeli delegations visit Washington amid U.S. misgivings over Gaza war

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Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrived Monday in Washington for talks with the Biden administration on weapons and U.S. support as relations between the longtime allies grow increasingly strained over Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

The United States has sent more than 100 weapons deliveries to Israel since the war began on Oct. 7 with a Hamas incursion into Israel that killed at least 1,200 people. In the ensuing campaign, Israeli strikes have killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, and the conflict has sparked a humanitarian crisis so catastrophic that senior aid officials describe its intensity and breadth as unparalleled in decades.

Gallant said in a statement that he would meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William J. Burns and focus on “preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge,” including “our ability to obtain platforms and munitions.” Gallant said that he also planned to speak with U.S. officials about “ways to achieve our common goals: victory over Hamas and returning the hostages home.”

But while the Israeli side emphasized goals shared with Washington, U.S. officials said the visit will also focus on an issue where Israeli and U.S. policy diverge: the status of Rafah, a city in southern Gaza where nearly 1.5 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering, and where Israeli officials are planning an incursion they say is necessary to root out Hamas.

On Sunday, Vice President Harris told ABC’s “This Week” that any military operation in Rafah “would be a huge mistake.” Asked whether there would be “consequences” from the United States for an Israeli operation in Rafah, she said, “I am ruling out nothing.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the nation late Sunday on the Jewish holiday of Purim, said “it is impossible to defeat the sheer evil [of Hamas] by leaving it intact in Rafah. … We will enter Rafah and achieve total victory.”

Analysts say that Netanyahu’s bellicose rhetoric over a potential Rafah operation is aimed in large part at his domestic constituency, overstating its imminence for political gain.

Aid groups have warned that such an operation could deepen Gaza’s humanitarian disaster. Half of the enclave’s 2.2 million population already face catastrophic levels of hunger, a U.N.-backed report concluded last week. Famine may already have reached some communities.

While Israel has proposed moving displaced families in Rafah to “humanitarian islands” in other parts of the enclave, it is unclear how that would work in practice. Fighting between the Israeli army and Hamas militants has continued to rage in areas that were once designated as safe zones. Civilians, most of them displaced multiple times, say there is no place left in Gaza that is truly safe.

But despite the harsher rhetoric from U.S. leaders, they appear unwilling to use the most direct leverage they have, which would involve imposing conditions on the supply of U.S. military equipment to Israel. During a visit Friday to Tel Aviv, Blinken was asked repeatedly whether the United States might halt or slow aid to Israel if it invades Rafah or if the conflict continues, and each time he said he would not speculate about hypotheticals.

World opinion, meanwhile, has been increasingly coming together in opposition to a Rafah campaign. In Amman, Jordan, on Monday U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described a growing global consensus “to tell the Israelis that the cease-fire is needed.”

“I heard it in the U.S., I heard it from the European Union, not to mention of course the Muslim world, a growing consensus to tell clearly to Israelis that any ground invasion of Rafah could mean a catastrophic humanitarian disaster,” he said.

United Nations chief António Guterres on March 25 expressed support for UNRWA after Israel told the U.N. that it will no longer approve their food convoys. (Video: Reuters)

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters last week that Biden has also requested the visit of another delegation, this one so the Israelis could “hear U.S. concerns about Israel’s current Rafah planning and to lay out an alternative approach.”

The team, including Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and the head of the National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, was due to leave for Washington Monday evening, an Israeli official told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the schedule has not been made public.

Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv, Rachel Pannett in Sydney, Annabelle Timsit in London and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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