While the Biden administration has gradually intensified its rhetoric about the importance of protecting civilians in Gaza in recent weeks, the impression in Jerusalem based off of conversations with US officials is that Israel’s window to operate in the Hamas-run enclave with Washington’s support is not closing.
“There have been some public statements that appear as if the US is turning in a different direction, but I don’t think that is the case,” said an Israeli official briefing The Times of Israel this week, referencing the increasing concerns by officials in Washington over the toll the war is taking on Gaza’s civilian population.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said earlier this week he believed the international “diplomatic window” for the IDF’s campaign in Gaza was “two or three weeks.”
“Far too many Palestinians have been killed; far too many have suffered these past weeks, and we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them and to maximize the assistance that gets to them,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
The Israeli official clarified that the US has concerns regarding “collateral damage and humanitarian issues” that it continues to raise but that Israel is attentive to them. “We really listen to them and we do what we can [to address their concerns], as long as it doesn’t undermine our ability to operate on the ground militarily.”
The official pointed to the 1,000 trucks of humanitarian aid that have entered Gaza in recent weeks, insisting that the number will gradually increase. They also highlighted the humanitarian corridors the IDF set up to allow Palestinians to flee south, away from the most intense areas of fighting in northern Gaza.
Israel is also facilitating the establishment of field hospitals by foreign governments in southern Gaza as well as floating hospitals off the coast of Egypt.
A ship sent by the French government is slated to arrive in the coming days while the UAE and Turkey are in talks to establish their own field hospitals in southern Gaza, the official said.
“These hospitals can accept patients from hospitals in the north,” the official stated, adding that Israel is coordinating with both the UN and Egypt in this effort.
War erupted after Hamas-led terrorists launched a devastating onslaught on October 7, in which they rampaged through southern communities, killing over 1,200 people, mostly civilians butchered in their homes and at a music festival, and kidnapping some 240 people. In response, Israel embarked on a massive air and ground campaign with the aim of toppling the terror group’s regime in Gaza, which it has ruled since taking over in a 2007 coup.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claimed Wednesday that 11,500 people had been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, including at least 4,710 children and 3,160 women. The figures cannot be independently verified and do not distinguish between civilians and terrorists, and also do not differentiate between those killed by Israeli airstrikes or by failed Palestinian rocket launches.
The day after
The official went on to explain comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, which appeared to reject the idea of the Palestinian Authority returning to govern the Gaza Strip after Hamas is defeated, as desired by the US.
Gaza cannot be ruled by “a civil authority that educates its children to hate Israel, to kill Israelis, to eliminate the State of Israel… an authority that pays the families of murderers [amounts] based on the number they murdered… an authority whose leader still has not condemned the terrible [October 7] massacre 30 days later,” Netanyahu said Saturday in reference to the PA.
“If you listen carefully, the prime minister didn’t say the PA will never go back [to Gaza], rather that it would need to undergo significant reforms in order to do so,” the Israeli official explained, adding that this stance is backed by much of the international community, including the Arab world, given the current state of the PA, which is struggling just to control the West Bank.
Ramallah argues that longstanding Israeli policies entrenching its control over the West Bank contributed to its weakening along with Jerusalem’s previous willingness to boost the PA’s rival Hamas through payments from Qatar.
The US has publicly implored Israel to plan for who will rule Gaza if the IDF succeeds in its war aim of eliminating Hamas, arguing that failure to prepare in advance risks leading to Israel being bogged down in the enclave indefinitely.
Israel has yet to publicly comment on the future of Gaza beyond Netanyahu saying that the IDF will maintain overall security control of the Strip for an indefinite period after the war — a stance that Blinken came out against on Thursday.
A source familiar with the matter clarified that Israel has officials privately working on “day after” plans and has reached out to the US to launch a joint dialogue on the matter.
However, the source indicated to The Times of Israel that there has been a degree of disorder in Washington, with officials in both the White House and the State Department working on the issue, “but we still don’t know who is going to lead that in the administration.”
This stance regarding a perceived disjointed US front was echoed by a senior Arab diplomat and an ambassador from another Arab country to The Times of Israel earlier this week.
Responding to the criticism, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson and a State Department spokesperson told The Times of Israel in identical statements, “President Biden and his national security team, including the White House, State Department, and the Defense Department, are working in unison together to support Israel as it defends itself from terrorism, to increase humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians, and to prevent this conflict from widening. We are united in our approach and will continue to work closely together throughout this conflict.”
“I would strongly… deny any characterizations that we are not acting in unison,” a White House official added on condition of anonymity. “Beyond that, the White House and State have been in regular touch with our Israeli and Arab counterparts as part of a coordinated diplomatic effort.”
US urges steps against growing settler violence
Another phenomenon credited for weakening the PA and destabilizing the West Bank has been settler violence, which has seen a surge since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.
As many as seven Palestinians have been killed by extremist settlers, although the circumstances of some of those incidents are not clear and an exact determination as to whether these individuals were killed by gunfire from settlers or Israeli security forces has not been possible.
According to the left-wing Yesh Din rights group, there have been more than 185 settler attacks against Palestinians in over 84 towns and villages around the territory since October 7.
In a phone call on Thursday with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, Blinken stressed the need for Israel to take “affirmative steps to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank, including by confronting rising levels of settler extremist violence,” according to a US State Department readout.
An Israeli source familiar with the matter asserted to The Times of Israel that a “small nucleus estimated at a few hundred extremists, at most” are responsible for instigating violence, but that the cabinet discussed this and has taken measures to clamp down on the phenomenon.
Netanyahu said last week that while most of the half a million West Bank settlers are law-abiding people who contribute a great deal to the country, “there is a tiny handful of people… who take the law into their own hands.”
“We are not prepared to tolerate this, and we will work against this in every way. It causes huge international damage to the State of Israel,” the premier said.
The Israeli source familiar with the matter argued that the phenomenon is linked to the uptick in Palestinian terror attacks coming out of the West Bank.
“It doesn’t justify settler violence, but it’s not detached.”