Biden speaks with Netanyahu as Israelis appear closer to Rafah offensive

President Joe Biden again urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against launching an offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah as Israel on Monday appeared to be moving closer to an offensive to root out Hamas militants.

But soon after Israel announced that it was ordering about 100,000 Palestinians to begin evacuating from Rafah, Hamas said in a statement it has accepted an Egyptian-Qatari proposal for a cease-fire to halt the seven-month-long war with Israel in Gaza.

There was no immediate comment from Israel on the deal, and details of the proposal had not been released.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said that Biden had been briefed on the matter. CIA Director William Burns, who was in Qatar for hostage talks with regional officials, was discussing the Hamas response with allies in the region. Kirby declined to discuss the parameters of what Hamas is saying it has agreed to.

“Bill Burns is looking at that response. He’s talking to the Israelis about it,” Kirby told reporters. “And we’ll see where this goes. Hopefully, it can lead to those hostages getting out real, real soon.”

In recent days, Egyptian and Hamas officials have said the cease-fire would take place in a series of stages during which Hamas would release hostages it is holding in exchange for Israeli troop pullbacks from Gaza.

Top Biden administration officials have been publicly pressing Hamas to accept what they have described as a generous offer by the Israelis that would also lead to an extended truce and the release of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons and perhaps lay the groundwork for a permanent end to the current conflict.

The White House said Biden in a Monday morning phone call with Netanyahu underscored U.S. concerns about an invasion of Rafah, where more than 1 million civilians from other parts of Gaza are sheltering as the war sparked by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel has led to the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinians and deprivation in the territory.

Biden told Netanyahu that he still believes reaching a cease-fire with Hamas is the best way to protect the lives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, officials said. The leaders’ call occurred before Hamas announced it had accepted a cease-fire proposal.

“The president was consistent again this morning that we don’t support ground operations in Rafah,” Kirby said.

The latest developments come as Biden was hosting King Abdullah II of Jordan for a private lunch meeting at the White House on Monday to discuss the war and hostage talks.

On Sunday, Netanyahu rejected international pressure to halt the war in Gaza in a fiery speech marking the country’s annual Holocaust memorial day, declaring: “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”

“I say to the leaders of the world: No amount of pressure, no decision by any international forum will stop Israel from defending itself,” he said, speaking in English. “Never again is now.”

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