If war stopped now, Hamas 'would still be a threat'

US says no firm deadline on Gaza war but cautions Israel on loss of civilian life

As deputy national security adviser says Jerusalem has ‘very legitimate objectives’ in war, Blinken notes ‘gap’ between Israeli pledges to protect civilians and results so far

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

Left: US Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer speaks in Bogota, Colombia, July 22, 2022 (AP/Ivan Valencia); Right: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a media event with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron at the State Department, Dec. 7, 2023 in Washington (AP/Alex Brandon)
Left: US Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer speaks in Bogota, Colombia, July 22, 2022 (AP/Ivan Valencia); Right: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a media event with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron at the State Department, Dec. 7, 2023 in Washington (AP/Alex Brandon)

A top US official on Thursday expressed strong backing for Israel’s objectives in the war with Hamas in Gaza, saying Washington had given no “firm deadline” to Jerusalem on ending its military operations in the Palestinian enclave.

But senior Biden administration officials also issued strong warnings to Israel on the need for maximum efforts to protect civilian life in Gaza amid a mounting death toll in the Hamas-ruled territory.

And US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was “a gap” between what Israel had pledged to do to protect Palestinian civilians and the results so far, since it began intensive military operations against Hamas in the south of the Strip.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer said during an on-stage interview at the Aspen Security Conference that Israel “has said that Hamas can no longer govern, can no longer be in charge of Gaza. We think that is a very legitimate objective, given what has happened on October 7 and since.”

Israel’s second main objective is that Hamas will no longer be allowed to pose the type of threat that it posed to Israel on October 7. “Frankly, if the war were stopped today, it would continue to pose [such a threat], which is why we’re not in place yet of asking Israel to stop or for a ceasefire,” Finer said.

“Those two objectives are legitimate. We think they’re working in that direction, but they have not achieved them yet,” he noted.

Finer said the administration had not given Israel a deadline to wrap up its military operation.

“We’re not in the business of being that prescriptive with a core partner and ally who has suffered such an egregious, appalling terrorist attack and who is responding in our view with what is absolutely necessary in their responsibility to reduce the threat to their own civilian population,” he said.

Blinken did, however, tell the war cabinet last week that Israel may have weeks, not months, to prosecute its war against Hamas at the current high intensity, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

“We have not given a firm deadline to Israel — not really our role. This is their conflict,” Finer said. “That said, we do have influence, even if we don’t have ultimate control over what happens on the ground in Gaza.

IDF soldiers operate in northern Gaza’s Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“We are trying to use our influence to steer that conflict in the most constructive… way possible,” he continued, referring to the need to abide by international law. “But in terms of telling them ‘you must stop at this moment’ — that’s not the way we conduct our business.”

Blinken told reporters at a joint news conference in Washington with visiting British Foreign Secretary David Cameron that it remains “imperative” that Israel do more to prevent harm to civilians as it seeks to eradicate Hamas from Gaza. He recalled that Israeli officials had assured him on a visit to Israel last week that they would take extra precautions to protect civilian life. He said he raised the issue again on Thursday.

“There does remain a gap between exactly what I said when I was there, between the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground,” he said.

A senior US State Department official said Blinken spoke earlier Thursday with Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer to say the US was pleased with new deliveries of fuel to Gaza but still wants to see those and other assistance deliveries increased.

Palestinians evacuate a wounded woman in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (AP/Mohammed Dahman)

At the same time, Blinken told Dermer that civilian casualties remain too high and that Israel must step up its efforts to reduce them, according to the official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the private diplomatic discussion.

Finer said there were “many legitimate military targets that remain” in south Gaza, including much of Hamas’s leadership.

He reiterated the US expectation that Israel learn and apply lessons from its fighting in north Gaza to its ongoing operations in the southern Strip.

“There have been aspects of how the conflict was conducted in the north that we think did not show sufficient care for civilian life and those aspects should be ameliorated in the south,” Finer stated, adding that Israel has a particular responsibility to protect civilians in the lower half of Gaza since it directed roughly one million Gazans to migrate there so that the IDF could operate more easily in the north.

A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing following Israeli strikes in Khan Younis on the southern Gaza Strip on December 7, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Finer was asked whether the IDF stated two-to-one ratio of civilians to combatants killed in Gaza was acceptable to the US.

“International law on… the concept of proportionality is not spelled out in terms of absolute formula,” he responded. “It’s not this or that ratio means you’re either above the line or below the line. We’re less focused on that calculus, which is a bit ineffable, and more focused on when issues arise that we raise our concerns…I think we’ve had some success with that.”

16th Biden-Netanyahu call

In a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday, US President Joe Biden expressed his deep concern regarding the roughly 135 hostages still in Gaza and reiterated the need for the Red Cross to be permitted to visit them, the White House said in its readout of what was the 16th call between the two leaders since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

Palestinians inspect the damage in a residential building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following Israeli air strikes early on December 4, 2023.(Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Biden agreed that last week’s truce fell apart because of “Hamas’s refusal to release young women, civilian hostages,” the White House said. “The leaders agreed to remain deeply engaged to pursue every possible opportunity to free the remaining hostages.”

He underscored the importance of a sustained flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, giving a nod to the cabinet’s decision to expand fuel deliveries “but stressed that much more assistance was urgently required across the board,” the White House readout said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden embrace at Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023. (screen capture)

The US president also raised the need for Israel to do more to protect innocent Palestinians and separate civilians from combatants through humanitarian corridors that allow safe movement away from defined areas of hostilities, according to the White House.

“Biden reiterated his concern about extremist violence committed against Palestinians and the need to increase stability in the West Bank,” the readout added.

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