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US not anticipating Israeli forces to enter Rafah at the start of Ramadan

The Biden administration is not anticipating that Israeli forces will imminently expand their military operations into Rafah, two US officials told CNN, with the holy month of Ramadan set to begin Monday for most Muslims.

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz, who visited Washington last week, has warned in recent weeks that if a temporary ceasefire and hostage release deal was not struck by Ramadan, the Israeli military would launch the next phase of its war against Hamas with a major incursion into Rafah in southern Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that regardless of a deal, he plans to send the military into Rafah.

“We’ll go there. We’re not going to leave [Gaza],” Netanyahu said Sunday in an interview with German outlet Axel Springer. “You know, I have a red line. You know what the red line is, that October 7 doesn’t happen again.”

Netanyahu was referencing comments made by President Joe Biden in a Saturday MSNBC interview in which he said an operation into Rafah “is a red line.”

“It cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead,” Biden said.

Netanyahu said Sunday in an interview with Politico and German media outlet Bild that the operation would not last more than two months but did not provide specifics on the timeline.

“Once we begin the intense action of eradicating the Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah, it’s a matter of weeks, if not months. That means it’s not going to take more than two months, maybe six weeks, maybe four,” he said.

As of this weekend, the Biden administration has yet to see any kind of humanitarian or evacuation plan from the Israeli government that seeks to ensure the safety of civilians in Rafah before launching a military operation there, the two US officials said.

More than a million people are crammed into a sprawling tent city packed against the Egyptian border in Rafah, the only nominally safe space for Palestinians fleeing the north and center of Gaza. Families are already living with severe shortages of food, water, medicine and shelter, and the daily risk of being killed.

The United Nations aid chief has warned that a ground invasion into Rafah could lead to “a slaughter.”

A deal that negotiators have been feverishly trying to strike before Ramadan would entail an initial six-week ceasefire and the release of some of the remaining Israeli hostages taken captive on October 7. It does not appear on the verge of a breakthrough.

CIA Director Bill Burns, who has led US efforts, was back in the Middle East last week meeting with Qatari, Egyptian and Israeli counterparts.

But Biden told reporters Friday that a temporary ceasefire deal being reached by the start of Ramadan – which he had only days earlier expressed optimism about – was now “looking tough.”

The approach of Ramadan had ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East, given Israel’s repeated warnings that it was preparing a military offensive into an area where an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering.

The Biden White House has been unequivocal recently that Israel must first present a blueprint guaranteeing the safety of civilians in Rafah before considering a full-force expansion of the war into the southern part of the Gaza Strip. US officials have also expressed serious skepticism that a guarantee of the safety of civilians is even possible in such a densely populated city.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, for example, said in a White House press briefing at the end of February that the US would not support an offensive into Rafah until the Biden administration has seen a plan that ensures the safety of refugees seeking shelter in the city.

CNN’s Mitchell McCluskey and Michelle Shen contributed to this report.

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