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WASHINGTON: Senior U.S. and Israeli officials held a virtual meeting on Thursday expected to include a discussion of both Israel’s plans for the southern Gaza city of Rafah and its consideration of a retaliatory strike against Iran.

U.S. and Israeli officials said the meeting is a follow-up to a similar meeting held on April 1. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Air Force One that the meeting had begun.

President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to conduct a large-scale offensive in Rafah to avoid more Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza, where Palestinian health authorities say more than 33,000 people have been killed in Israel’s assault.

Israel ‘not looking’ for escalation with Iran: US

The meeting comes as Israel considers launching an attack on Iranian targets in response to Iran’s launching of a barrage of drones and ballistic missiles last weekend against Israel.

Washington is trying to dissuade the Israelis from retaliatory strikes to avoid inflaming an already tense situation, a second U.S. official said.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan was leading the talks from the U.S. side, with participation from Biden’s Middle East envoy, Brett McGurk, among others.

Israel’s strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi were heading the Israeli delegation in the virtual talks, an Israeli official said. The official said topics would include “the operational and humanitarian planning for Rafah.”

Plans for in-person talks on Rafah have been delayed in the aftermath of Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel, the official said.

In Ramallah, the Palestinian government called on the Biden administration to “intervene immediately to stop the ongoing Israeli aggression against our Palestinian people.”

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