SecDef: I haven’t seen a full Israeli plan to protect civilians in Rafah

SecDef: I haven’t seen a full Israeli plan to protect civilians in Rafah

As Israel’s prime minister reiterated his intention to push into Gaza’s westernmost division, the U.S. defense secretary said Tuesday that he hasn’t seen enough evidence that the Israeli military is prepared to ease the toll on Palestinian civilians in the jam-packed city of Rafah.

U.S. officials have “not seen a number of things that we believe that will have to happen” for the operation to proceed, Secretary Lloyd Austin told a House Armed Services Committee hearing. There are “some signs” of such preparations, Austin said, but he wants more assurances and planning, such as “making provisions for the civilians [so that] wherever you direct them to, you have sustainment in that area…so, you know, that the housing, the medical care, all that stuff that, that needs to be in place.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., asked about the potential for civilian casualties in a Rafah incursion. Austin replied that Israel’s offensive has claimed “far too many civilian deaths already.” 

“We certainly would want to see things done in a much different way” than operations across the rest of Gaza, he said.

Earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Rafah operation will take place regardless of the status of peace talks with Hamas and despite pressure from the Biden administration to hold off.

More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.5 million has fled to Rafah, according to some estimates, as Israel has bombed other parts of the country. The group Doctors Without Borders has warned of declining humanitarian conditions in the area and said “a military incursion in Rafah would be a catastrophe.” 

The Gaza Health Ministry puts the number of civilian deaths so far at at least 30,000. The Ministry is run by the Hamas government, but independent academic experts and the United Nations have said they see no signs the numbers are inflated. 

In a conversation with reporters last week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration is strongly opposed to an expanded military operation. “We do not think that that is the way to deal with Hamas in Rafah. We believe there are other ways to do it,” Sullivan said.

The Biden administration has faced months of pressure to stop providing arms to the Israeli military. On Monday, Amnesty International submitted a research briefing to the U.S. government documenting instances of what the human rights group called illegal uses of U.S.-made weapons by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians. For example, the group cited the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, which it claims Israeli forces used in an October attack that killed 43 civilians, as well as GBU-39 small diameter bombs, which were used as part of a series of four strikes that killed 42 children, among others.  

In his conversation with reporters, Sullivan said the administration is still examining accusations that Israel is failing to address humanitarian concerns and acting outside of international law, but that it will submit a required report on the subject to Congress on May 8. 



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