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‘Major ground operation’: If Biden has a Gaza ‘red line,’ Israel likely has leeway left

Analysts: ‘Israel is unlikely to halt its military operation in Rafah’ despite pressure

Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks and other vehicles drive near the city of Rafah, Gaza, on Wednesday.
Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks and other vehicles drive near the city of Rafah, Gaza, on Wednesday. (Saeed Qaq/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — If President Joe Biden truly has a “red line” for the conflict in Gaza, Israeli officials likely have not come close to crossing it.

The Biden administration’s metric for what would amount to the crossing of such a line — and potentially lead Biden to switch off the spigot of American military aid to Tel Aviv — shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet have a huge amount of leeway to continue air strikes, and even ground operations.

That tactically sizable operating space was on full display this weekend, when an Israeli airstrike killed around 40 Palestinian civilians — many of them children — and in subsequent days as Israeli Defense Forces tanks rolled into Rafah. The southern Gaza city is where Netanyahu’s government, which could soon face a vote on dissolving the country’s parliament and moving toward elections, initially instructed Palestinian civilians to flee. Now Israel contends there are Hamas operatives hiding among the refugees.

In recent weeks, amid reporters’ repeated questions about Biden’s own words about a limit to the civilian death toll he would tolerate and the administration’s internal definitions of that “red line” and “major ground operation,” senior Biden aides have said Israel has not crossed the line.

John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, has jousted with reporters about whether the weekend airstrike violated the “red line” Biden described in an interview with CNN earlier this month.

During a sometimes-testy Tuesday briefing — the lone scheduled televised one this week — Kirby kept steering reporters back to three words: “major ground operation.”

“The president has been very clear and very direct about what our expectations are for Israeli operations in Rafah specifically, but in Gaza writ large,” he said as reporters challenged his contention of presidential and staff clarity.

“We don’t support, we won’t support a major ground operation in Rafah and we’ve again been very consistent on that. And the president said that should that occur, then it might make him have to make different decisions in terms of support,” said Kirby, who then added the caveat that is driving the U.S. side’s decision to keep sending bombs, artillery shells, ammunition and other military equipment to Israel.

“We haven’t seen that happen at this point,” he said of a large-scale military operation inside Rafah or the greater Gaza Strip.

Some Democratic lawmakers and experts have questioned why Biden has decided to continue supporting Israel amid more than 35,000 Palestinian civilian deaths, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry and the United Nations, which also reports another 81,000 wounded. Answers lie in the scope of recent Israeli strikes and troop movements inside the refugee-packed city and strip.

“What a major ground operation entails, lots of units of, tens of thousands of troops, or thousands of troops, moving in a coordinated set of maneuvers against a wide variety of targets on the ground in a massive way,” Kirby told reporters. “That’s a major ground operation, pretty simple. I mean, it’s not hard to discern that. I think it’s very obvious what that is, and we have not seen them move in that way.”

It has been Biden’s own words about a possible “red line” and upending 76 years of U.S. policy that have clouded his policy for the conflict.

The president on May 8 told CNN “Outfront” anchor Erin Burnett during an interview in battleground Wisconsin that he had made clear to Israeli leaders that if they conduct military operations in “population centers” inside Gaza, he might withhold U.S.-made heavy bombs. He later froze one shipment of those munitions.

“I made it clear that, if they go into Rafah — they haven’t gone into 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, to deal with that problem,” Biden told CNN. He also appeared to say the goal was to limit Israel’s ability to go on offense in a big way inside Rafah, but not to defend itself.

“We’re going to continue to make sure Israel is secure, in terms of Iron Dome [missile defense system] and their ability to respond to attacks like [the one that] came out of the Middle East recently,” he said.

Notably, Biden never used the term “red line” during that interview, according to a transcript produced by CQ Roll Call.

‘Not a big bomb’

Kirby was asked about Biden’s comments in the rare sit-down television interview on Tuesday, and dismissed any notions that the weekend airstrike crossed the line his boss appeared to set.

“The president wasn’t moving the stick anywhere. He was talking about major ground operations in Rafah proper, which is what we’ve been saying all along,” the national security spokesman said. “And when he was referring to population centers, that’s exactly what he was referring to.”

But Biden continues to support Israeli airstrikes — even in Rafah, with U.S. officials saying this week they have confirmed an IDF claim that two Hamas operatives were killed in the Sunday aerial bombardment.

That’s especially true if Israeli officials opt to conduct them without resorting to so-called heavy bombs, which weigh 1,000-2,000 pounds and are more likely to cause collateral damage, meaning civilian deaths. Smaller bombs, often supplied by the U.S., are precision-guided, helping to limit civilian casualties.

“As a matter of fact, the Israelis have said they used 37-pound bombs, precision-guided munitions. A 37-pound bomb is not a big bomb,” Kirby said. “If it is in fact what they used, it is certainly indicative of an effort to be discreet and targeted and precise.”

Put another way: Biden’s “red line” remains intact, and likely will for some time. And that will have ramifications on the ground.

“Rising international pressure on Israel is unlikely to halt its military operation in Rafah,” analysts at the private intelligence service Dragonfly wrote in a briefing paper published Wednesday. Israel’s military ground operation of Rafah will probably last several weeks at least.

“That is based on the timeline of Israeli operations in Gaza in other densely populated areas. It took the military several weeks to reach central Rafah from the east of the city, where it is now,” Dragonfly analysts wrote. “Over the past days, Israeli air strikes west of Rafah suggest the military plans to enter it in the coming days. Low-intensity operations in Gaza will probably continue at least until the end of the year with the aim of totally eradicating Hamas.”

Richard Haass, a former State Department official and now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Wednesday that the Biden administration should ditch any possible internal deliberations about whether this or the next Israeli operation breached a “red line.”

Instead, he told MSNBC, U.S. officials should zoom out and ask questions like: “Is this still wise? Is this still in the interests of the United States? Is this still in the interests of Israel?

“This is a job that cannot be finished,” Haass said of Israel’s current approach and goal to “destroy” Hamas. “Israel continues to fight a conventional war in an unconditional environment.”

Author’s note: FiscalNote is the parent company of Dragonfly and CQ Roll Call.

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