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US says Rafah red line not breached despite domestic and global outrage

White House denied Israel violated its red line against launching full-scale assault on Rafah, as Israeli tanks rolled into city centre
US President Joe Biden speaks on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on 27 May (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The Biden administration on Tuesday denied that Israel violated its red line against launching a full-scale assault on Rafah, even as Israeli tanks were reported rolling into the centre of the besieged southern Gaza border town.

“This so far is a different type of military operation,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, distinguishing between Israel’s offensive on Rafah and earlier assaults on major cities like Khan Younis and Gaza City.

“We will continue to emphasise to Israel their obligation to comply fully with international humanitarian law, minimise the impact of their operations on civilians, and maximise the flow of humanitarian assistance to those in need,” Miller said.

Tuesday’s State Department briefing comes as Israel grows increasingly isolated on the world stage, with the International Court of Justice on Friday ordering Israel to immediately halt its offensive in Rafah.

Israel reacted to the ruling saying that it was not conducting a genocide in Gaza and continued to pummel the city. On Sunday, at least 45 people were killed and dozens more wounded, most of them women and children, when Israel struck a tent camp housing displaced Palestinians in the Tel al-Sultan neighbourhood of western Rafah.

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That strike led Hamas to inform mediators it was ending its participation in ceasefire talks aimed at ending the war on Gaza, Middle East Eye reported.

Key US allies like France slammed the bombing that sparked a massive blaze. French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “outraged" by the strike. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrel condemned the strike in “the strongest terms”.

Miller said the US expressed its deep concern to Israel over the strike and would be watching Israel's investigation into the attack.

But he also noted that Israel's preliminary investigation suggested "the strike was carried out using the smallest bomb in their arsenal, targeting terrorists 1.7 kilometres away from the al-Mawasi area where this fire took place”.

Satellite images show Rafah's Tel al-Sultan after Israeli strike

Drag the button to see the devastation

The administration’s language over Israel’s assault on Rafah is being even more carefully monitored since President Biden warned earlier this month he would withhold offensive arms transfers to Israel if it attacked “population centres” in Rafah.

But analysts and former US officials familiar with the administration’s thinking told MEE previously that the White House would go to lengths to avoid enforcing its red line.

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Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the Obama administration, told Middle East Eye that ”Biden will do everything he can to avoid escalating this fight…This is more of pink line”.

White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday that the administration was not imposing "a measuring stick here or a quota" to examine whether its red line was breached, but said Israel’s bombing on Sunday didn’t cross Biden’s red line to suspend arms transfers.

The US has imposed a single pause on a shipment of 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs to Israel.

"We've also said we don't want to see a major ground operation in Rafah that would really make it hard for the Israelis to go after Hamas without causing extensive damage and potentially a large number of deaths. We have not seen that yet," he said. 

Israel’s deadly bombing, however, sparked outcries among Biden’s progressive base.

'Genocidal maniac'

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat in the House of Representatives, called the strike “an indefensible atrocity” and challenged Biden on social media "to live up to his word and suspend military aid”.

Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib went further. She wrote on X that “Genocidal maniac Netanyahu told us he wants to ethically cleanse Palestinians. When are you going to believe him @POTUS”.

"Horrific and gut wrenching images coming out of Rafah last night," Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said, calling images of the attack site “horrific and gut wrenching” and asking, "How much longer will the US stand by while the Israeli military slaughters and mutilates Palestinian babies?”

Despite the outcries from progressives, Biden is gearing up for a presidential election in which Republicans are billing themselves as steadfast supporters of Israel. Nikki Haley, a former Republican presidential candidate who some say is under consideration as Donald Trump’s running mate, visited Israel on Tuesday and was photographed signing an Israeli bomb with the words “finish them”.

On Thursday, Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, a move that could turn up the political heat on Biden and other Democrats.

The administration itself has walked a tightrope responding to criticism of Israel.

Last week, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken suggested that the Biden administration was ready to work on sanctioning International Criminal Court officials after the court’s chief prosecutor called for arrest warrants on Israeli and Hamas officials.

But on Tuesday, the White House walked back those commitments, with Kirby telling reporters, “We don't believe that sanctions against the ICC is the right approach here”.

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