In call with Netanyahu, Biden urges major boost in flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza

US national security adviser laments ‘deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians,’ confirms Washington is heavily involved in negotiations for return of hostages held by Hamas

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

US President Joe Biden (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)
US President Joe Biden (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Sunday that the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza needs to “immediately and significantly increase,” the White House said.

Israel over the weekend reopened the second of three water pipelines that provide water to the Gaza Strip, but 90% of the water flow in Gaza is self-sourced and goes through desalination plants that have been unable to run due to lack of fuel.

Israel says Hamas is diverting fuel from civilian use and has refused to allow additional supplies since the war broke out. The United Nations warned earlier Sunday that “civil order” was starting to collapse in Gaza after thousands of people ransacked its food warehouses in the war-torn Hamas-run enclave.

The issue came up during Biden’s call with Netanyahu about latest developments in the Gaza war, and the president “underscored the need to immediately and significantly increase the flow of humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of civilians in Gaza,” according to the US readout.

The rest of the readout regurgitated previous White House talking points on the war. Biden “reiterated that Israel has every right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism and underscored the need to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law that prioritizes the protection of civilians.”

The two also “discussed ongoing efforts to locate and secure the release of hostages, including American citizens who remain unaccounted for and may be held by Hamas,” the readout added, saying that the two agreed to “remain in regular consultation both directly and through their respective national security teams.”

The IDF dramatically increased its presence in the Gaza Strip on Friday night, three weeks since some 2,500 Hamas terrorists stormed into Israel, killing 1,400 people, taking at least 229 hostages and injuring over 5,400 people, the vast majority of them civilians, in the deadliest massacre in Israel’s history.

In response, the IDF launched Operation Swords of Iron and vowed to eradicate Hamas from Gaza, where it has ruled since 2007, and free the hostages.

Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, while stressing that it is adhering to international law and seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

“There have been deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians in this conflict and that is an absolute tragedy,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview with CNN on Sunday, becoming the first US official to give a general figure of civilian deaths in Gaza since the start of the war on October 7.

“Those people did not deserve to die. Those people deserve to live lives of peace and safety and dignity,” he added.

According to the Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip, some 8,000 Palestinians have died since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas, which was launched with the aim of eradicating the terror group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

However, these figures cannot be independently verified and are believed to count both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. Israel says it killed some 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.

Biden himself has drawn flak for doubting the veracity of the casualty figures coming out of Gaza, saying last week that he has “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”

Palestinians pass by a destroyed building in Rafah in the Gaza Strip on October 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

In his Sunday interview, Sullivan also confirmed that hostage negotiations are “ongoing,” and that the US is in hourly contact with Israel and regional partners in order to secure their release.

“Even though we have started to see Israel move in on the ground, that has not changed our basic view that this has to remain of paramount priority,” he said.

At least 230 hostages have been held in Gaza since October 7, and an additional four hostages taken that day have since been released as a result of negotiations overseen by Qatar.

“It’s impossible to understand what they’re going through, not knowing the fate of their loved ones, said Sullivan, speaking to the plight of the hostages’ families.

“It’s something that weighs on us emotionally, but we are trying to stay as focused and as clear-eyed as possible in achieving the objective of bringing people home,” he continued.

Sullivan added that one of the purposes of the humanitarian pauses the US been pushing in the Gaza fighting is for the hostages to be safely released.

He also confirmed that the US is working on getting out the several hundred American citizens who want to leave Gaza — an objective that has hit repeated snags with Israeli, Egyptian and Hamas intransigence.

The National Security adviser also touched on the topic of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, reiterating that Netanyahu “has a responsibility to rein in the settlers.”

According to Israel’s Yesh Din rights group, there have been over 100 separate incidents of settler violence and harassment against Palestinians in the West Bank, across 62 different towns and communities, since Hamas’s massacre in southern Israel on October 7.

Calling the uptick “totally unacceptable,” Sullivan told CNN that the US expects “over time to see the Israeli government step up on this. We expect accountability for extremist settlers who engage in this kind of violence.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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