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Israeli delegation to visit Washington to discuss planned offensive on Rafah

Israel will send a team of officials to Washington to discuss its planned offensive on Rafah, the White House has said, as the Biden administration insists that an attack would be a “mistake” and seeks to persuade Israel to allow in more aid in the face of an imminent famine in Gaza.

The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, announced the Israeli visit after a phone call on Monday between Joe Biden and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, focusing on the planned Rafah assault that Netanyahu has vowed to launch.

Sullivan confirmed that Israeli forces had killed Marwan Issa, the deputy commander of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, and one of the masterminds of the 7 October attacks, in an operation last week, one of thousands of Hamas fighters he said had been killed. But he added: “a military plan cannot succeed without an integrated humanitarian plan and political plan.”

Sullivan said it was “first and foremost” Israel’s obligation “to step up and ensure that more is done to deliver food to starving people in northern Gaza”, in the wake of a warning from UN organisations that famine was “imminent” in northern Gaza, with an onset at any time between mid-March and May.

Related: ‘Catastrophic levels of hunger’ in Gaza mean famine is imminent, says aid coalition

Sullivan restated US opposition to the planned Rafah offensive, pointing out that more than a million Palestinians had taken refuge in the southernmost Gazan town having fled other cities ruined by Israeli bombing.

“Israel has not presented us or the world with a plan for how or where they would safely move those civilians, let alone feed and house them and ensure access to basic things like sanitation,” Sullivan said.

He also pointed out Rafah was the main entry point for the small amount of aid reaching Gaza, and it could seriously affect Israeli relations with Egypt, on the other side of the border.

Sullivan described the Biden-Netanyahu call, their first in over a month, as “businesslike” but said the US president had dismissed “straw man” arguments put forward by the Israeli leader.

“The president has rejected and did again today the straw man that raising questions about Rafah is the same as raising questions about defeating Hamas. That’s just nonsense,” he said.

Sullivan admitted that Israel had made military gains against Hamas but said, “A major ground operation [in Rafah] would be a mistake.” It would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza, and further isolate Israel internationally.”

In the call, Biden asked Netanyahu to send a team of military, intelligence and humanitarian officials to discuss Gaza and talk about alternatives to attacking Rafah.

“Now we really need to get down to brass tacks and have the chance for a delegation from each side on an integrated basis, everyone’s sitting around the same table, talking through the way forward,” Sullivan said. “Send your team to Washington, let’s talk about it. We’ll lay out for you what we believe is a better way.”

He said Netanyahu accepted the invitation and the meeting should happen at the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

“We have every expectation that they’re not going to proceed with a major military operation in Rafah until we have that conversation,” Sullivan added.

The national security adviser said talks were also continuing in Doha between Israel, Qatar and Egypt aimed at securing a hostage deal, and that if Hamas agreed to release the elderly, sick and women hostages “tomorrow” there would be an immediate six-week ceasefire.

“We believe those discussions are very live, that a deal is possible, that we should be able to achieve it and that it is the best way both to get hostages home and to alleviate the suffering of the civilians in Gaza,” Sullivan said.

He said the US was hoping to beat the projected schedule of 45 to 60 days for building a floating dock off the Gaza Strip for delivering aid delivered by sea. The plan is for US military engineers to put the dock together at sea and then for it to be floated into shore and secured by Israeli troops, Sullivan said. Aid agencies have warned, however, that the famine would already have a grip on Gaza by the time any such a pier is built, it remains unclear how food would be distributed, and it would be no substitute for opening more land routes for more aid to flow into the besieged coastal strip.

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