White House Defends Israel Amid Escalation in Rafah, Clarifies ‘Red Line’ Stance

The United States stated on Tuesday that Israel’s actions in Rafah so far did not constitute a “major ground operation” that would breach President Joe Biden’s warnings.

Chaos in Rafah
Rafah’s condition after Israel’s attack.

As Israeli forces advanced further into Rafah following an airstrike that resulted in a major fire and the deaths of dozens of Palestinians, the White House asserted that Israel had not breached the Biden administration’s “red line.”

On Tuesday, Israeli tanks were observed entering central Rafah for the first time, amidst increasing global condemnation over the fatalities in a crowded tent camp for displaced civilians. U.S. aid deliveries to Gaza by sea were also suspended due to damage to a temporary pier.

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National Security Council spokesman John Kirby assured reporters that the United States was not ignoring Israel’s actions in Rafah. He clarified that the Biden administration did not view Israel’s activities there as a “major ground operation” that would violate President Joe Biden’s warnings and lead to a change in U.S. policy, including the suspension of weapons shipments.

“A major ground operation is, you know, 1000s and 1000s of troops moving in a maneuvered, concentrated, coordinated way against a variety of targets on the ground,” Kirby explained.

A U.S. official similarly told NBC News that while the deadly strike was a “horrific incident,” it appeared to be an airstrike gone “horribly wrong” rather than Israel “smashing into Rafah.”

Earlier this month, Biden told CNN: “I made it clear that if they go into Rafah — they haven’t gone in Rafah yet — if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem.”

When NBC News’ Gabe Gutierrez questioned how Israeli tanks nearing central Gaza did not constitute a full-scale ground operation, Kirby responded that Israeli officials claimed their tanks were moving along the Philadelphi Corridor, a strategic strip along the Egypt-Gaza border, and “not in the town proper.”

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Kirby’s statements came shortly after an Israeli airstrike ignited a fire in Rafah’s Tal al-Sultan neighborhood, killing at least 45 people, including children, according to local health officials.

Hala Rharrit, a former U.S. diplomat who resigned from the State Department in protest over U.S. policy on Israel’s war in Gaza, criticized the Biden administration for trying to “wiggle their way out” of the “red line” commitment. She emphasized that the president’s intent was to avoid mass civilian casualties, regardless of whether they were caused by tanks or bombs.

The tent camp attack has intensified international pressure, with the United Nations’ top court ordering Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah. The U.N. Security Council could vote on a draft resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza as early as Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

Israel submitted a new cease-fire proposal to Qatari, Egyptian, and American mediators on Monday, an Israeli official told NBC News. The proposal aimed at a “sustainable calm” but fell short of a complete end to the war as demanded by Hamas.

Basem Naim, a senior Hamas official, told NBC News on Tuesday that Hamas had not received any proposal from the mediators.

In a briefing, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israel was investigating the strike and the resulting fire, which he described as “unexpected and unintended.” He suggested that weapons stored in the targeted area might have ignited the blaze, though this was still an assumption. An Israeli and a U.S. official suggested that a struck fuel tank might have caused the fire.

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The aftermath of the strike has increased pressure on the U.S. to respond. During a White House briefing, when asked how many “charred corpses” it would take for Biden to change policy, Kirby expressed offense, asserting that the U.S. did not want to see any more innocent lives lost.

The IDF has conducted a months-long ground offensive in Gaza, resulting in over 36,000 deaths, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel launched the offensive following Hamas’ October 7 attacks, which killed around 1,200 people and took approximately 250 hostages. About 125 hostages are believed to still be in Gaza, with a third presumed dead.

Biden’s “red line” warning recalls former President Barack Obama’s similar stance in August 2012 regarding the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.

Critics accused Obama of not acting when that boundary was crossed, with political opponent John McCain remarking that the red line appeared to be “written in disappearing ink.”

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