Inside storyOfficials dubious of Israeli proposals to evacuate Rafah

Biden aides to Gantz: Gaza aid convoy disaster shows need for viable post-war plans

US officials say incident wouldn’t have occurred if more was done to get aid to Gazans, warn it could portend Strip’s future if Israel won’t advance clear alternative to Hamas rule

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

War cabinet member Benny Gantz arrives at the US State Department ahead of a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 5, 2024 in Washington DC. (Drew Angerer/AFP)
War cabinet member Benny Gantz arrives at the US State Department ahead of a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 5, 2024 in Washington DC. (Drew Angerer/AFP)

Top aides to US President Joe Biden told visiting war cabinet minister Benny Gantz during meetings this week that the recent disaster in northern Gaza in which dozens of desperate Palestinians were killed while rushing a convoy of humanitarian aid highlighted for Washington how Israel has failed to properly plan for the war, two US officials told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Last Thursday’s incident would not have happened if Israel were doing more to ensure humanitarian aid was reaching civilians, according to the US officials. The pair spoke on condition of anonymity regarding the messages that US Vice President Kamala Harris, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, White House Mideast czar Brett McGurk, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed to Gantz during closed-door meetings on Monday and Tuesday.

Hamas claimed that at least 115 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more wounded as they swarmed aid trucks that entered Gaza City at 4:30 a.m. The terror group accused Israeli troops of shooting at the crowd of thousands. The IDF, which said dozens were killed, said it was investigating the matter but that many of the victims were trampled to death in a chaotic crush for food aid and that its troops only fired at a few individuals who rushed toward them in a threatening manner.

The US officials argued Tuesday that the administrative vacuum in northern Gaza that was exposed by the deadly stampede offers a window into what the entire Strip will look like after the war, if Israel won’t put forward a viable alternative to the Hamas rule it’s seeking to dismantle.

The Biden administration has sought to advance a broader regional initiative that would see Gaza rehabilitated by neighboring Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, which would also normalize relations with Israel on the condition that Jerusalem take steps to establish a time-bound, irreversible pathway for a Palestinian state led by a reformed Palestinian Authority governing over both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but rejected the proposal, declaring that he will not allow Gaza to become “Fatahstan” — a reference to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s political party and highlighting his long-held effort to buck international efforts to establish a Palestinian state. Instead, he is seeking to install local clan leaders unaffiliated with Hamas or Fatah to provide services for Gazans instead of the terror group, while leaving Gaza politically cut off from the West Bank.

This image grab from a handout video released by the IDF on February 29, 2024, shows crowds rushing aid trucks in northern Gaza. (Aline Manoukian/Israel Defense Forces/AFP)

One US official said the plan would backfire and lead to Israel indefinitely occupying the Gaza Strip. Israeli leaders insist they aren’t interested in this outcome, but this is the “inevitable result” of the Netanyahu government’s strategy, said the official.

“The Israelis continue talking about receiving support from Arab states, thinking it’ll come, regardless of whether or not there’s a pathway to a Palestinian state, no matter how many times we explain that it’s not going to happen,” the US official added.

Netanyahu, Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant have each presented post-war plans for Gaza that envision countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia assisting in the revitalization and de-radicalization of Gaza, while making no mention of any political horizon for the Palestinians.

A top Emirati official said already in December that Abu Dhabi will condition its financial and political support for the reconstruction of Gaza after the Israel-Hamas war on the advancement of a US-backed initiative toward a two-state solution. The message has been echoed by Riyadh as well.

“The Israelis could be left alone with this entire mess,” the US official warned.

Building on this point, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Tuesday that while the US supports Israel’s military objective of defeating Hamas, this is insufficient on its own.

US Vice President Kamala Harris (2nd right) hosts Minister Benny Gantz (2nd left) at the White House on March 4, 2024 (Office of VP Kamala Harris)

“We’re also going to have to defeat the ideology behind Hamas and that is not something that can be accomplished on the battlefield. It’s something that we have learned in the United States in our long history with counterterrorism… Ultimately you have to beat that idea with a better idea — a broader political resolution that will address the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people,” Miller said during a briefing.

The US officials said that the administration’s anger over the level of aid entering Gaza appeared to be resonating and that they expected new steps to be taken by Israel in the coming days to ensure that more humanitarian assistance reaches Palestinian civilians. The main US request has been that Israel open additional crossings, particularly into northern Gaza, in order to flood the enclave with aid, with the aim of minimizing the impact of looters or gangs trying to sell it on the black market.

As for the changes the administration wants to see in Israeli planning for the day after, the second US official said it was too early to tell whether Jerusalem would alter its strategy.

“Minister Gantz isn’t the one making the final decision at the end of the day, so the impact of his trip in that regard will be limited, particularly given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s displeasure over the whole thing,” said the second US official.

Netanyahu fumed upon learning of Gantz’s planned visit, viewing it as an effort to undermine his authority. An Israeli official said he ordered the Israeli embassy in Washington not to provide assistance to the visiting war cabinet minister, who polls indicate would be able to unseat Netanyahu if elections were held today.

The US officials said the Biden aides also pressed Israel on its plan to expand its ground offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Gantz presented the IDF’s initial proposals for evacuating the over one million Palestinians currently sheltering in Rafah to areas further north before launching the operation to dismantle the remaining Hamas battalions, but the US officials said they remained unconvinced of their viability.

Displaced Palestinians walk around in an UNRWA school housing displaced Palestinians, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 4, 2024, (AFP)

According to readouts from the State Department and Pentagon, Blinken and Austin expressed alarm during their respective Tuesday meetings with Gantz regarding the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Blinken “emphasized the need for Israel to act urgently to enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza and to improve the distribution of that aid inside Gaza. The current situation is unacceptable and unsustainable,” State Department spokesman Miller said.

“While the United States is doing everything it can to increase deliveries into Gaza, Israel must take additional steps as well,” Miller said.

Blinken also “reiterated that the United States continues to support Israel’s right to ensure that the terrorist attacks of October 7 can never be repeated,” his spokesman added.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon said the defense secretary “expressed strong concerns over the humanitarian situation in Gaza and requested Minister Gantz’s support in enabling more humanitarian assistance and distribution into Gaza.”

Austin reaffirmed the US demand for Israel to present a “credible and implementable plan for protecting civilians and addressing the humanitarian situation” before launching its major ground incursion into Rafah.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Waer Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

While Gantz didn’t issue any readouts on his Tuesday meetings, his office said the war cabinet minister conveyed “his appreciation for the administration’s support for Israel during these times” in his Monday sit-down with Harris.

“In the meeting, Gantz reiterated the imperative of completing the mission of removing the threat Hamas poses to Israel, finding a sustainable solution to ensuring humanitarian aid reaches civilians and not the Hamas terror group, and the importance of completing all of the operation’s military objectives in Gaza in a manner that enables stability and prosperity for the region entirely,” the Israeli readout said.

“Gantz stressed the importance of forming an international mechanism to oversee the humanitarian effort in coordination with countries of the region as soon as possible and as part of the wider normalization effort,” his office continued. “Minister Gantz emphasized to VP Harris Israel’s supreme commitment to secure the return of the hostages and finally conveyed his gratitude for the significant pressure the US is applying to advance the matter, particularly during these days.”

After meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday afternoon, Gantz departed for London where he will meet with UK Foreign Minister David Cameron before returning to Israel on Wednesday night.

The London visit was equally infuriating for Netanyahu, who also ordered Israel’s embassy in the British capital not to provide Gantz with any assistance, including with security arrangements for his visit, according to Channel 12.

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