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‘You can’t be killing humanitarian aid workers and civilians’, US tells Israel over Gaza

‘You can’t be killing humanitarian aid workers and civilians’, US tells Israel over Gaza

U.S. president, Joe Biden, has given Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu an effective ultimatum on Thursday.

Biden asked Netanyahu to protect Palestinian civilians and foreign aid workers in Gaza or Washington could rein in support for Israel in its war against Hamas militants.

The message, after months of U.S. calls for Israel to change its military tactics that have killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, followed an Israeli attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid workers and triggered global outrage.

Israel admits the strike was a mistake.

READ ALSO: Israel kills US citizen, others in airstrike on aid workers in Gaza, Biden ‘outraged’ 

The White House did not say exactly what steps it wanted Netanyahu to take, nor what it would do if he failed to take them. But analysts said the implicit threat was to slow U.S. arms transfers to Israel or to temper U.S. support at the U.N.

Biden, up for re-election in November, has struggled to balance pressure to rein in Netanyahu from progressive Democrats dismayed at the Palestinian civilian death toll against the risk that may alienate mostly pro-Israel independent voters. He has so far resisted setting conditions on arms transfers.

The war began after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies, prompting an Israeli invasion that has laid waste to much of the densely populated territory and displaced most of its 2.3 million people.

READ ALSO: Situation in Gaza ‘catastrophic, unconscionable, shameful’, says UN General Assembly president

More than 33,000 Palestinians have died, according to the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, of which most were women and children. Israel accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields.

Describing their call, the White House said Biden called for Israel “to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.

“He made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps,” the White House added in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was more blunt.

READ ALSO: ‘Blood on your hands, genocide enabler’,  British lawmakers face threats, abuse over Gaza

“Look, I’ll just say this: if we don’t see the changes that we need to see, there will be changes in our policy.”

On Thursday evening, just hours after the call, the Israeli government announced several steps to increase aid flows to Gaza, including opening the Ashdod port and the Erez crossing into northern Gaza and increasing aid deliveries from Jordan. It was not clear if the steps would be enough to satisfy U.S. demands.

Turning Point

The turning point for Biden, an ardent supporter of Israel, was Monday’s deadly Israeli attack on the workers from celebrity chef Jose Andres’ WCK charity group.

It came as the Biden administration has been stepping up pressure on Israel to consider alternatives to a threatened ground offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, the last relatively safe haven for civilians in the coastal enclave.

READ ALSO: GENOCIDE IN GAZA: EU, South Africa ask Israel to immediately implement ICJ ruling in full

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source familiar with the talks said the 30-minute call was at times tense, with Biden spelling out his concerns and Netanyahu defending his approach on Gaza.

A senior White House official described the conversation as “very direct, very straightforward,” saying it included Vice President Kamala Harris, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Blinken.

You can’t be killing humanitarian aid workers and civilians

As to what the United States expects, the official said: “We need a comprehensive plan on them doing a much better job here. They can’t be killing humanitarian aid workers and civilians.”

While Biden has long avoided curtailing U.S. support for Israel, he may finally have reached his limit.

“There was always going to be a point at which the Biden administration felt that the domestic and international cost of supporting Israel’s campaign in Gaza outweighed the benefit of what Israel was able to achieve on the ground,” said Mike Singh, a former National Security Council official on the Middle East.

“What is remarkable is not that this is happening but that it took so long.”

Singh, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said if Israel did not meet Biden’s conditions, the likeliest step was the U.S. negotiating a U.N. Security Council resolution like the one that ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

“Placing conditions on arms transfers is more fraught politically, would likely face stiff opposition on (Capitol) Hill, and could leave Israel vulnerable to attack by Hezbollah or other Iranian proxies,” he added.

Still, Biden may have telegraphed his thinking last month when, after saying a Rafah invasion would be a “red line,” he said he would never cut off “all weapons so that they don’t have the Iron Dome (missile defense system) to protect them.”

He did not explicitly make such assurances about offensive weapons, fueling speculation he could impose conditions on such arms transfers to Israel, which relies heavily on U.S. arms.

Jonathan Panikoff, a former deputy national intelligence officer on the Middle East, said Biden was unlikely to take drastic action upending U.S.-Israeli ties, such as withholding big-ticket weapons or completely abandoning Israel at the U.N.

But he could put conditions on smaller military items and take further measures against extremist Jewish settlers involved in attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

“Biden’s frustration with how the war is being conducted, and with Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, has reached an apex,” Panikoff said.

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