From ‘Bear Hug’ to Barbs, How the U.S. and Israel Differ on Taking Rafah

Less than two weeks after Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 terror attacks on southern Israel, President Joe Biden became the first American leader to visit Israel during wartime, touching down at Ben Gurion Airport for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to give the Israeli people a symbolic “bear hug.”

Yet even back then, some Israelis warned that the public display of support by the self-proclaimed Zionist president would, at some point, wane as other U.S. priorities replaced the “hug,” putting the administration at odds with the Jewish state’s war goals.

This week, that prediction seemed to be coming true. Not only did the U.S. abstain from using its veto powers to stop a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, but the administration appeared to ramp up its pressure on Israel to refrain from a major military operation in Hamas’ final stronghold of Rafah, prioritizing the safety of Palestinian civilians.

Following a meeting on Tuesday between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon, a senior defense official told reporters that while the Biden administration still supported Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas, it was now urging the Israelis to find an alternative approach and that the protection of Palestinian civilians was now more of a priority.

“From the beginning of the war, Israel and the U.S. had different positions on this,” Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Misgav Institute, told Jewish Insider.

“Israel was determined to destroy Hamas and get the hostages released, while the Americans, right from the beginning, said they did not want the Palestinian population to be harmed, and now they have put the well-being of the Palestinian population above anything else,” he said, noting that the order of priorities between the two allies was now at odds.

Kuperwasser, who previously headed the research division of the IDF’s military intelligence unit and served as the director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said that the new U.S. position had emboldened Hamas and was unlikely to stop an Israeli military operation in Gaza.

“Israel does not intend to hurt anyone in Gaza, we are doing our utmost to provide humanitarian aid, but we also understand that Hamas uses its civilians as human shields and as tokens to put pressure on the U.S. administration,” he said.

For months, the U.S. has been increasing its pressure on Israel to refrain from entering Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost province, where Israeli defense officials say four Hamas battalions remain largely intact and the terror group’s top leaders are presumed hiding among more than 1.4 million civilians – many of whom fled fighting in the northern and central parts of the Strip over the last five-and-a-half months of war. Israel also believes that some or all of the remaining hostages – more than 100 – are being held in Rafah.

Voices on the U.S. side have grown louder in recent weeks amid accusations by U.N. relief agencies and other international aid groups that Israel is preventing crucial aid from entering into the Palestinian enclave and that the territory is on the verge of an extreme humanitarian disaster.

Israel has pushed back, saying that it is not blocking any aid from entering into Gaza and that it is facilitating international aid deliveries via the land, air and sea. COGAT, the Israeli military body that works in the Palestinian territories, said recently that it has streamlined its inspection process for aid going in, expanded its operating hours and opened more crossings into the territory. It maintains instead that the problem is with distributing the aid, as relief convoys are attacked and looted by Hamas terrorists and armed gangs.

“It’s a real shame how the administration is acting right now,” Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), told JI.

“I don’t think it’s military strategy that’s driving this, it’s politics,” he continued, pointing out that the administration sent a senior foreign policy official to Dearborn, Mich., home to the country’s largest Palestinian-American population.

“That was the pivot, that same week, we saw [Secretary of State Tony] Blinken talking about needing a Palestinian state,” Makovsky said.

“What we saw on Oct. 7, and in subsequent weeks, was Biden from the gut – pro-Israel, supportive, he understood what the U.S. had to do – meanwhile, he had a lot of the administration pushing against him,” he added. “Now, I think Biden has gone where the rest of his administration is because of politics – this has been emerging for a while.

“I think for some folks in the administration this is what they really believe,” Makovsky continued. “For Biden, he is just doing what he thinks he needs to do to shore up his support base.”

Makovsky said that while he had questions about why it has taken so long to launch a military operation in Rafah, he noted that “Israel is very determined and has been clear for a while that they have to take Rafah.”

“Unless they take Rafah, they don’t beat Hamas,” he said. “And unless they beat Hamas, Israel loses, and Hamas wins, and Iran wins and the United States loses.”

In a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, told reporters that the U.S. believes a full-scale military operation in Rafah would make the situation on the ground even worse. He also said it would threaten Israel’s national security.

“It would be a mistake not just because of the civilian harm that it would cause, which would be immense – there are somewhere around 1.4 million people in Rafah now, and the government of Israel has not presented a credible plan to evacuate those people to other areas and take care of them once they were moved,” he said. “But we also think that this type of invasion would weaken Israel’s security. It would make Israel less safe, not more safe. It would undermine its standing in the world.”

Miller said that the U.S. was ready to present Israel with a plan that would help it achieve its “legitimate goal, which is the defeat of Hamas, but would do so in a way that does not cause undue civilian harm and not weaken Israel’s overall security.”

His comments were echoed at the Pentagon following Austin’s meeting with Gallant, although administration officials shared no clues as to what such a plan would entail or how it would work.

Angry over the U.S. abstention on the U.N. Security Council resolution vote on Monday, Netanyahu announced the cancellation of a planned trip by top Israeli officials to Washington for discussions over Israel’s possible courses of action in Rafah. On Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean Pierre said the Israeli leader had agreed to reschedule the meeting for next week. There was no official announcement from Israel.

Kuperwasser cast doubt on the U.S.’ alternative plan for Rafah, saying, “They may have a secret way that we have not thought of yet, but the only secret way I can think of is for someone to convince Hamas to lay down its arms and leave Gaza – I don’t think Hamas will buy that.”

Itamar Yaar, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, said that in order for Israel to achieve its war goals, Hamas’ ruling capabilities would need to be dismantled entirely.

“If you listen carefully to the U.S. administration, they are not saying ‘don’t go into Rafah,’ they are just saying that Israel should do it in a way that minimizes civilian casualties,” he said.

Yaar, who currently serves as the CEO of Commanders for Israeli Security, an organization of some 550 ex-senior security officials, said that Israel would have to carry out the operation with care and in a far more surgical way than previous military operations.

“I am sure that before the IDF does any kind of maneuver into Rafah it will allow and encourage those who came to Rafah from other parts of the Strip to leave, they might not be able to go back to the north, but they could go to the center of Gaza,” he said.

As for what kind of operation the IDF might stage in Rafah, Yaar said it would be quite different to how it operated at the start of the war in Gaza. There will be more special operations, less air power, the army will take its time and it will all be carried out in coordination with Egypt and the U.S., he said.

“There are many limits on this operation and that is why it has been delayed more than once,” he continued, noting the issue of more than 100 hostages still being held by Hamas and the possibility of Hamas terrorists trying to move northward with the civilian population.

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported on new facial recognition technology that the army has been piloting in Gaza as it works to weed out terrorists from among the general population – this will also be likely used if the army begins to move those sheltering in Rafah away from the area.

Briefing journalists this week, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, also noted the challenges in mounting an operation in Rafah. “We need to orchestrate it in a way that will ensure there are different humanitarian islands,” he explained.

“How do we do that?” he asked. “We cannot do it alone, we will have to coordinate this with international organizations and the United States.”

Hagari said that together with COGAT, the IDF was already working on a plan that would be shared with the U.S.

“I think there is a delegation over there right now,” he said. “It is very, very complex but we’ve been working in complex conditions since Day One of this war because of the ruthless way Hamas embeds itself in the population and uses civilians as human shields.”

Originally published in Jewish Insider.