Israel has agreed to daily “tactical, localized pauses” in its offensive against Hamas to allow the distribution of humanitarian assistance and the further evacuation of civilians as its troops move toward the center of Gaza City, Israeli and U.S. officials said Thursday.
Israel agrees to humanitarian pauses, but gulf with U.S. remains
Since Sunday, tens of thousands of Palestinians, most of them on foot and many with their hands up as they walked by Israeli military vehicles and soldiers, have headed south in a massive exodus. A senior Biden administration official estimated that about 250,000 civilians remain in northern Gaza, where Israeli troops are advancing block by block in street fights against Hamas militants while using airstrikes to drive them out of underground tunnels.
The announcement was the result of a weeks-long effort by the Biden administration to get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. When he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv last Friday, Netanyahu agreed to the pauses in principle, but a range of U.S. officials — including Biden himself — have been pushing him to commit.
Israeli forces have occasionally paused their ground assault in the north and airstrikes throughout Gaza, but U.S. officials said the agreement Thursday is an attempt to formalize and expand them — and to make the commitment public so that the Israelis are under more pressure to hold to it.
It came as CIA Director William J. Burns met in Doha with his Israeli counterpart, Mossad chief David Barnea, and top officials from the government of Qatar, which has been mediating indirect U.S. and Israeli talks with Hamas over the release of hostages held in Gaza.
Biden, boarding Air Force One for a trip to Illinois, told reporters he had discussed with Netanyahu the possibility of a three-day pause in hostilities to facilitate the release of some 239 hostages, 10 of them American citizens, taken during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel that left 1,400 dead. Hamas had earlier asked for a five-day pause to release nonmilitary hostages.
There was no public indication of progress in the Doha talks over hostages, which included a meeting between Burns and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, according to several U.S. and foreign officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss developments on humanitarian relief, Gaza exit corridors and the hostages. Israel has said it will not agree to a cease-fire until all hostages are freed. Biden has also said he does not think there should be a formal cease-fire until Hamas is defeated.
For Biden, the agreement with Israel for daily, localized pauses in the offensive is a small sign of progress in an expanding regional crisis that has left the United States trying to balance its unlimited support of Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas with widespread and growing international criticism of how Israel is exercising that right.
More than 10,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed over the past month, according to Gazan health authorities, primarily in Israeli airstrikes. Israel’s self-described “siege” of the enclave has left the remaining population in dire humanitarian straits, with dwindling food and medical care and without electricity, according to both the United Nations and the United States.
Asked whether he was “frustrated” that Netanyahu hadn’t “listened more” to things Biden had asked of him, the president replied, “It’s taking a little longer than I hoped.” Confirming that he had asked for a three-day pause, Biden said “I’ve asked for an even longer pause” in some instances.
To enable more humanitarian aid to be distributed, “a pause is something more, in our view, than a couple of hours,” the senior Biden administration official said. “A pause has a duration of a day, a couple of days, long enough to move significant quantities of humanitarian things in that would not otherwise be doable, and to get more foreign nationals … out” of Gaza.
Biden has been under both domestic and international pressure to show that the United States has some leverage with Israel, although Netanyahu has not made it easy.
U.S. leverage, “if you want to use that term, is the fact that Israel understands at the highest levels” that even with the strong support the United States is extending to end the Hamas threat, and Israel’s absolute right to do it, “you can’t do it in kinetic fashion only. There has to be a strong humanitarian assistance component” that is “visibly seen impacting for the better the very, very difficult situation in Gaza,” the official said.
On Wednesday, an Israeli government spokesperson denied there was any food shortage at all in Gaza, in contrast with daily descriptions of desperation inside the enclave from the United Nations and other international organizations, as well as the United States and many other countries. “The situation is insupportable. To allow it to continue would be a travesty,” U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said Thursday at summit on the Gaza crisis hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
Also on Thursday, David Satterfield, whom Biden appointed his special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues shortly after the Hamas attack, told reporters that real need for food and medical supplies remains, although progress is being made.
“I want to note here we started just two and a half, three weeks ago at zero” in terms of truckloads of humanitarian assistance allowed to enter Gaza as Egypt, Israel and Hamas haggled over the terms. “We have moved the level of assistance up to now to around 100 trucks a day,” Satterfield said. “We understand that even 150 trucks a day just meets the bare minimum to provide basic survival humanitarian assistance. Much more is needed beyond that.”
The difficult negotiations, and laborious process of allowing both Egypt and Israel to vet every name on exit lists, have also delayed the egress of thousands of foreign nationals from Gaza into Egypt. Progress was slowed last weekend, when Hamas closed the Gaza side of the gate, demanding that more injured civilians be allowed to leave first. It opened again on Monday, only to close again on the Egyptian side for the day on Wednesday after an aid convoy and its International Committee of the Red Cross escort came under fire inside Gaza.
U.S. officials estimated that about 450 of about 1,000 people on a State Department list of American citizens and their eligible family members have left Gaza, while cautioning that numbers may be inexact because some do not check in with American consular officials before leaving the crossing.
The rising civilian toll in Gaza and the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s offensive have led to sharp political and public divisions in the United States. Massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been held in major cities, as Jewish Americans have reacted with both fear and anger to what they perceive as antisemitism. While a relatively small number of Democratic lawmakers have called on Biden to use more U.S. leverage with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, others in both parties have charged Biden with not being supportive enough.
All five of the Republican presidential hopefuls at Wednesday night’s televised debate made little to no mention of the humanitarian crisis and instead called for the obliteration of Hamas. “Finish the job once and for all with these butchers,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would tell Netanyahu.
In recent weeks, the administration has intentionally devoted increased attention to the privations in Gaza, both publicly and, according to officials, in its private conversations at all levels of the Israeli government. After rejecting calls for humanitarian pauses during the first weeks of the Israeli offensive, it has embraced the concept.
But even as U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby hailed Israel’s agreement to begin the daily pauses, crediting Biden’s intervention with Netanyahu and telling reporters it was a “significant step” that “we want to see … continued for as long as needed,” the prime minister’s spokesman in Israel initially declined to confirm there had been any agreement at all.
Pressed for details, spokesman Elyon Levy said only that Israel would continue to allow a “window” for evacuations from north to south Gaza along a specified corridor. He declined to address the details Kirby announced and it was only later in the day, at U.S. urging, that Israeli officials confirmed them.
Michael Birnbaum in New Delhi, John Hudson and Shane Harris contributed to this report.