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Biden administration presses Israel for restraint in south Gaza

The Biden administration is increasingly concerned that an upcoming Israeli offensive in southern Gaza will result in thousands more Palestinian civilian casualties, derail further hostage releases and interrupt the expanding flow of humanitarian aid, leading to stepped-up domestic and international criticism that Washington is complicit in Israel’s actions.

“We continue until the end, until victory,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told troops he visited inside northern Gaza. Once the current pause in fighting in exchange for the release of hostages is over, he said, “nothing will stop us.”

But “they can’t do what they did in the north in the south,” a senior administration official said, referring to the bombing of civilian areas and infrastructure that left much of northern Gaza in rubble and more than 13,300 Palestinians dead, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which is no longer providing daily updates.

In private admonitions that have become increasingly public over the past week, the administration has cautioned that “a different kind of campaign has to be conducted in the south,” said a second senior official. The officials discussed the situation on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the administration.

An estimated 2 million Palestinian civilians are now believed to be in southern Gaza, hundreds of thousands of whom evacuated from the north at Israeli urging.

“We’ve been clear with the Israelis that we don’t support them moving forward with operations in the south unless they have a plan to deal with the now-increased level of civilians there,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

The administration is pushing for strict operational limits around what one official called “areas of deconfliction,” where civilians can be “immune from kinetic activity,” including U.N. facilities, hospitals and schools where displaced Gazans have sought shelter.

U.S. officials have urged Israel to use smaller, more precise munitions — not the 2,000-pound explosives Israel dropped in the north as it sought to destroy what it said were miles of tunnels used by Hamas under hospitals and residential areas.

“The basic notion,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” is that “continuing military operations should learn lessons from the north to be applied in any further undertakings. That is something that we have been discussing with the Israelis at length.”

While one administration official said Israel’s response behind closed doors has been “receptive,” Netanyahu’s government and the military command have publicly vowed to use even more forceful means to win the offensive in the south. “When we return to the fight, the power will be greater, and will exist all over the [Gaza] strip,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said during a visit to troops inside northern Gaza on Monday. The overall effort will continue, he said, until the mission of eliminating Hamas as a military and political force is accomplished.

While Israel has claimed to have killed many senior Hamas commanders and an untold number of militants, many are believed to have fled to southern Gaza.

Israeli military officials say they take U.S. advice seriously, but they reject the idea that major operational changes are needed.

“We’re continuously talking with anyone who has lessons learned about this area, including our American counterparts,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Amnon Sheffler told reporters Tuesday in a briefing at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “I don’t think that so far, there’s big lessons that we have been missing.”

Israel insists that its troops must conduct military operations in Khan Younis, the major city in southern Gaza where tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians fled under IDF evacuation orders and where Israel now says Hamas is operating.

“Hamas terrorists moved together with the civilians to the south,” Sheffler said. “So in order to reach both our goals, to release the hostages and to dismantle Hamas, it’s a necessity to act also in that area.”

The U.S. message of restraint will be repeated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he meets with Israeli officials later this week, an official said, and is part of discussions being held in Doha, Qatar, between CIA Director William J. Burns and his Israeli counterpart, Mossad Director David Barnea.

Burns has been a primary negotiator in discussions among the United States, Israel and Qatar, which serves as a go-between for Hamas, that led to a four-day pause in military operations in Gaza and the freeing of at least 80 Hamas-held women, children and foreign hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The pause, which began Friday, was extended Tuesday for two days to allow the release of at least 20 more Hamas captives.

The administration would like the fighting pause and prisoner releases to continue indefinitely, at least until all hostages are freed. At least 150 remain in captivity, most of them men, including six or seven American citizens who were not included in the initial pause agreement. There has been no agreement with Hamas for the release of Israeli soldiers or civilian males.

“The deal is structured to allow a pause to continue for more … to be released,” President Biden told reporters Friday. “I have consistently pressed for a pause in the fighting for two reasons: to accelerate and expand the humanitarian assistance going into Gaza and, two, to facilitate the release of hostages.”

At the same time, Biden said, “I’ve encouraged the prime minister to focus on trying to reduce the number of casualties while he is attempting to eliminate Hamas, which is a legitimate objective that he has.”

But to many in the Arab world and beyond, the administration’s endorsement of Israel’s aims and its refusal to press for a full cease-fire are squandering the relationships Biden has built over the past three years.

“We all support it,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said of the negotiated release of Israeli and foreign hostages. “But Israel is taking 2.3 million Palestinians hostage … by denying them food and water and by this war,” he said this month at a recent regional conference on the crisis.

Biden maintains that he is with the Arabs in trying to temper Israel’s actions, while endorsing its goals. “My expectation and hope is that, as we move forward, the rest of the Arab world and the region is also putting pressure on all sides to slow this down, to bring this to an end as quickly as we can,” Biden said.

The administration is particularly gratified that its diplomatic efforts led last month to agreement between Israel and Egypt to allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah crossing. The pause in fighting has allowed significantly increased quantities of food, fuel and medical supplies to flow into the enclave.

“There were periods when the president was on the phone with the prime minister of Israel, Jake Sullivan with his counterpart, I with mine, Secretary Blinken with all of the above every single evening to work these kinds of issues through,” said a senior official closely involved in the negotiations who briefed reporters this week. “And our objective was not to continue to have to make these calls every night, but to get a sustaining mechanism in place. And that’s where we are right now.”

But sustained and increased delivery of assistance is likely to become more difficult again, if not largely impossible, if major Israeli air and ground operations move south.

“It is extremely important — and from the president down, we have reinforced this in very clear language with the government of Israel — very important that the conduct of the Israeli campaign, when it moves to the south, must be done in a way that it is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant further displacement of persons,” the senior official said.

“You cannot have the sort of scale of displacement that took place in the north replicated in the south. It will be beyond disruptive. It will be beyond the capacity of any humanitarian support network, however reinforced, however robust, to be able to cope with,” the official added.

Arab countries, particularly Jordan and Egypt, have been warning the administration about the potential for multiple, escalating crises in the region if Israel aggressively presses its offensive into southern Gaza, according to two Middle Eastern officials familiar with the discussions.

Of particular concern to neighboring states is the possibility that millions of civilians will become trapped between Israeli forces and Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, with nowhere to go.

In one worst-case scenario cited by an official, desperate Gazans may force their way through checkpoints at the Rafah crossing at the enclave’s extreme southern end, potentially triggering clashes with Egyptian border guards. Israeli soldiers chasing Hamas leaders attempting to escape could become caught up in the skirmishes, said the official, who spoke on the condition that his name and nationality not be revealed, citing diplomatic sensitivities.

A new wave of fighting that results in mass killings of Palestinian civilians would see a renewed threat of widespread unrest in neighboring countries after several days of relative calm, the Middle Eastern officials said. Jordan, a close U.S. ally, already has been rocked by large pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and protest leaders have repeatedly threatened to march into the Israeli-occupied West Bank if the Israeli assault continues.

The West Bank has witnessed sharp spikes in violence over the past six weeks in clashes between Israeli settlers and military forces. Regional officials fear a return to levels of turbulence not seen since 2000, when a major uprising, known as the second intifada, by Palestinians against Israeli occupation occurred.

In Egypt, President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi’s government fears a strengthening of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood movement — historically allied with Hamas — if the conflict in southern Gaza intensifies.

The Israelis “have heard our concerns,” Kirby said. “I honestly don’t know if they have a plan together.”

Joby Warrick and John Hudson in Washington, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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