Senior US officials said Monday that the Biden administration is opposed to a second mass displacement of Palestinians in Gaza, as Washington further specified the conditions under which it would continue to support the IDF expanding its ground incursion into the southern section of the Hamas-run enclave once the temporary ceasefire in the enclave expires in the coming days.
“You cannot have the scale of displacement that took place in the north replicated in the south,” said one of two senior administration officials briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.
The remarks came a day after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that the Biden administration wanted Israel to “learn the lessons” of its ground incursion in northern Gaza and not begin operating in southern Gaza until it can ensure that Palestinian civilians are able to avoid the fighting.
The IDF operation came after Hamas and other Gaza terror groups massacred 1,200 people in Israel and took another 240 or so hostage into Gaza.
After a three-week aerial bombardment, Israel launched a phased ground incursion on October 27, which started in northern Gaza.
Over 14,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, whose numbers haven’t been independently verified and are known to include Palestinian terrorists killed by Israel as well as Palestinian civilians killed by errant rocket fire from Gaza.
Israel and Hamas agreed to a temporary lull in fighting that went into effect on Friday, with Hamas freeing dozens of hostages in exchange for Israel releasing three Palestinian security prisoners per hostage.
While the four-day truce was extended by an additional two days and mediators are aiming for it to stretch further, Israel has made clear that it will resume its war against Hamas once the temporary ceasefire concludes and that its ground troops will soon make their way from the north to the south of Gaza.
Before launching the ground incursion in the north, the IDF spent weeks directing Gazans living there to move south in order to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Over one million Palestinians heeded the call, and 80% of Gaza’s already crowded population of 2.3 million now resides in the southern and central Strip, the senior US official said Monday.
The official warned that the humanitarian support network, which has seen an uptick in aid during the truce, would not be able to support another mass displacement of Palestinians within Gaza. The US has also clarified that it wholeheartedly opposes the displacement of Palestinians outside of Gaza, despite calls from some Israeli ministers and lawmakers for the international community to support the idea.
Instead, the Biden administration is urging Israel to delineate multiple locations in southern Gaza proximate to already-existing shelters and other facilities run by aid organizations “where there will not be kinetic [IDF] activity,” the senior US official said.
The official recognized that a certain degree of displacement will be “inevitable,” but they clarified that “no one is going to be forced out of their homes by intent.”
During the second week of the war, Israel announced the establishment of a humanitarian zone in Al-Mawasi, near the southern coast of Gaza. However, it was not clearly demarcated and far too small to house the enclave’s entire population, making it insufficient, a senior US official told The Times of Israel last month.
The IDF calls on #GazaCity residents to evacuate south for their protection.
— COGAT (@cogatonline) October 18, 2023
The senior officials briefing reporters on Monday said that what the US is now asking Israel to establish goes well beyond that narrow safe zone.
“These [additional] areas [will be]… designed as places preemptively for people to go to,” the senior administration official said.
The IDF’s military campaign must “be conducted in a way that is maximally de-conflicting with humanitarian facilities — power, water, hospitals and other facilities, including the many UN-supported shelters located throughout south and central Gaza,” they continued.
The Biden administration’s envoy for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, David Satterfield, said last week that Israel responded to a US request to create a “deconfliction mechanism” to better ensure that humanitarian workers and civilians are protected during ongoing IDF strikes in Gaza.
Explaining the idea, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel last week that an IDF officer will be tasked with coordinating between humanitarian organizations and troops on the ground so that the latter do not target areas where aid workers are operating.
Deconfliction efforts to date had not been streamlined, leading to several instances where aid workers and civilians were unnecessarily harmed, a US official said last week.
The senior administration official briefing reporters Monday said the US has been discussing these issues constantly with Israeli counterparts who now understand “that a different type of campaign has to be conducted in the south than was conducted in the north.”
The senior official clarified that the US still supports “the elimination of Hamas as a governing and threatening force in Gaza,” but “how the campaign is conducted, particularly in the south is exceedingly important because of the fragile situation” caused by the mass displacement of northern Gaza residents.
The briefing senior officials made a point of highlighting the increase in humanitarian aid entering Gaza, particularly since the implementation of the truce on Friday, which has ushered in 200 trucks of aid each day since.
US diplomacy efforts helped move Israel from its original approach of “not one drop of water, not one ounce of fuel and not one pencil would move across the border,” to allowing the entry of over 2,000 trucks, including fuel, the senior administration official said.
The official acknowledged that the aid coming in is still insufficient, given the ballooning humanitarian crisis. However, additional reinforcements are en route, including a “relief flight” facilitated by the US military, which will arrive at the El-Arish airport in Egypt’s Sinai on Tuesday carrying medical items, food aid and winter gear, the official said, adding that two additional planes of aid will arrive in the coming days.
The planes will also carry vaccines to prevent the spread of diseases, the administration official said, while adding that the best way to prevent an outbreak is to ensure that there is a supply of potable water in Gaza. Accordingly, the US successfully pressured Israel to begin allowing in fuel earlier this month to keep critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, water desalination plants, wells and sewage systems operating. Israel has long maintained that Hamas has stockpiles of fuel that were not being used for the needs of the civilian population.
But El Arish is the only airport receiving shipments of aid, which are then driven into Gaza through Rafah. It has only one runway and very limited parking, making it unsuitable for the mass deliveries that are needed for the coastal enclave, a senior US official said told The Times of Israel last week.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is also meeting with donor countries to urge them to ensure that UN humanitarian agencies working on the ground are fully funded, the US official said, noting that the US is already the largest donor country and has announced $100 million in additional aid for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank last month.
Phase one to phase two
With 200 trucks of aid going in each day since Friday, the US official said that the goal is now to move on to “phase two” of the effort, which will mean supplementing “basic subsistence humanitarian goods” with a similar quantity of commercial goods.
But for this to happen, “inspection procedures will need to be increased and enhanced,” the senior administration official said.
Current procedures see aid arrive in Egypt, where it is inspected by Egyptian authorities. It is then driven through Israel’s Nitzana Crossing where it’s examined by Israeli authorities before being returned to Egypt and ferried through Rafah into Gaza.
Washington has been pressuring Israel to reopen its Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza to help facilitate the entry of more aid into the enclave, the two officials said.
“The Israeli government has made a political decision — which I do not see any sign of changing so long as hostages are held by Hamas — of closing Kerem Shalom so that goods from Israeli territory are not going directly into Gaza,” the administration official said Monday.
However, they for the first time left open the possibility that Israel might agree for Kerem Shalom to at least be used for inspecting goods, given that the crossing is better suited for this task than Nitzana.
The administration official speaking to The Times of Israel last week posited that Kerem Shalom could also be used for trucks to exit Gaza after delivering aid, thus easing the load on Rafah.
The administration officials briefing reporters on Monday said the US also supports the establishment of field hospitals by Jordan, Turkey, the UAE and international aid organizations, which add up to hundreds of additional hospital beds.
Some countries have also dispatched ships to El Arish, where they will serve as floating hospitals off of the coast of Sinai. A ship from France is slated to arrive in the coming days.
Israel is also supportive of these initiatives, as it seeks to clear existing hospitals within Gaza, which it says Hamas uses to operate command centers underneath.