President Joe Biden and other senior US officials have warned Israel that its planned offensive in southern Gaza must avoid the kind of mass internal displacement triggered by its bombardment of the north.
According to a senior US administration official, secretary of state Antony Blinken will press for protection for Gazan civilians and call for more aid to be delivered to the strip on an expected visit to Israel, the West Bank and the United Arab Emirates this week.
US officials acknowledge that Israel intends to resume its efforts to eliminate Hamas after the current pause in fighting, but say they have told Israel it must not worsen the humanitarian crisis if and when its army moves into southern Gaza.
Israeli officials have been receptive to the US concerns, the senior administration official said on Monday.
“There is an understanding that a different type of campaign has to be conducted in the south than was conducted in the north,” the official added.
“It is extremely important...that the conduct of the Israeli campaign when it moves to the south must be done in a way that is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant further displacement of persons,” the official said.
The US will maintain its support for Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas but also continue urging the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to avoid civilian casualties, officials said.
“The manner of the campaign has to be extremely carefully thought through,” the official said, adding that humanitarian sites, hospitals, power and water networks and other facilities “including the many UN-supported shelters throughout central Gaza” should be protected.
Palestinian authorities say at least 14,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, have been killed since Israel launched its military response to Hamas’s surprise October 7th attack, which killed 1,200 people. Most of the bombardment has targeted Gaza’s north, where the IDF has also destroyed thousands of buildings.
More than 1.7 million people in Gaza, or nearly 80 per cent of the population, are now estimated to have been internally displaced since the war started, according to the UN.
US officials have previously warned about the scale of the death toll in the coastal enclave, with Mr Blinken saying in early November that “far too many Palestinians have been killed”.
The warning about Israel’s conduct comes despite the US’s continued support for the campaign to remove Hamas as “a governing, as a threatening force in Gaza and a threat to Israel”, the official said. The White House’s stance has triggered debate within the administration and complaints from officials.
“The reversion to such terrible humanitarian conditions are not in the US interest, nor in Israel’s,” Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council think-tank, “so understandably Washington is trying to thread the needle between Israel’s need to go forward for its security while recognising the continued need for humanitarian support for the civilian population of Gaza as military operations resume soon.”
The US and Israel had also discussed “practical arrangements on the ground” in multiple areas of Gaza to allow those fleeing the coming offensive in the south to find shelter and safety, said the senior official.
Such sites would be close to “already contained UN facilities and shelters” and are not aimed at forcibly or pre-emptively moving people, but instead creating places where civilians know they could go to seek safety as the fighting proceeds, the official said.
The US is also trying to increase the supply of aid into Gaza, with the 240 truckloads currently entering Gaza each day “nowhere near enough” for citizens to resume anything like normal life, a second senior administration official.
The second senior official said the first of three US military planes carrying medical assistance, food aid, winter equipment and other assistance would arrive in Egypt on Tuesday. The goods would be delivered into Gaza by the UN.
The US is also trying to allow for the supply of commercial goods into Gaza so deliveries could reach about 300 or 400 trucks per day. This would still be below pre-war levels.
To facilitate commercial deliveries, Israel would need to increase and enhance inspection procedures and allow commercial contractors inside Gaza to receive the goods arriving from Egypt, the first senior administration official said.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023