As Israel prepares to invade Gaza, the United States resists publicly calling for restraint

As Israel presses ahead with what it promises will be a “crushing” attack on the Gaza Strip, the Biden administration has carefully avoided making public calls for restraint or a cessation of hostilities.

Horrified by the brutal and deadly offensive that Hamas militants launched on Saturday against Israelis, President Biden has been forceful and relentless in condemning the Gaza-based group and supporting Israel, acknowledging Israel’s outrage and desire for revenge. the traumatized nation.

In most of the long series of clashes between Israel and Palestinian or other Arab groups in recent decades, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the United States has urged a reduction in tensions and a return to calm.

But when Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians in Gaza City to evacuate their homes and seek safety in the southern Gaza Strip ahead of the anticipated Israeli ground incursion, U.S. officials cited the importance of international law but did not. They questioned Israel’s plans. Some human rights organizations say the forced evacuation of besieged non-combatants could constitute a war crime.

“No country can tolerate a terrorist group coming in, massacring its people in the most unconscionable way and living like this,” US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Friday at a news conference in Doha, the capital of Qatar. “What Israel is doing is not retaliation, it is defending the lives of its people.”

Blinken is holding urgent meetings with officials from several Arab states after traveling to Tel Aviv on Wednesday to emphasize US support for Israel. His main goal is to prevent the war from expanding beyond Israel and Gaza and to deter other enemies of Israel from getting involved.

Blinken said he and other US officials stressed to Israeli leaders the importance of “taking every precaution possible to avoid harming civilians,” but added that any country “faced with what Israel has suffered would likely do the same.” .

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was in Tel Aviv on Friday to show solidarity with the Israeli military. When asked about the possibility of mass civilian deaths in Gaza, Austin said the Israeli military “is professional, disciplined and focused on the right things.” At the same time, Austin said of Hamas attacks, “there is no excuse for the unforgivable.”

Blinken and Austin’s trips and comments were intended to publicly reinforce Biden’s message of unconditional support for Israel. But if the death and destruction in Gaza increases in the coming days and weeks, the United States risks being blamed for failing to prevent the worst.

“To the extent the administration can keep its concerns private, it will do so, in part to reassure Israelis,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a teleconference on Friday. “But the downside of that… is the feeling that the United States is doing nothing and standing by while the rest of the world tries to pressure Israel, and why doesn’t the United States join in?”

Analysts and former diplomats said private messages are likely to be more nuanced than the public chorus, which gives officials cover to raise more problematic issues.

Blinken and others are probably telling Israelis privately that they should be careful not to let the upcoming offensive against Gaza squander the support and sympathy Israel now has, said Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

“My guess is that they are saying to the Israelis: ‘You don’t want the narrative to change. We know you want to decapitate Hamas, but don’t go overboard and become the problem,’” Kurtzer said.

The United States should also remind Israel, which receives even more weaponry from American arsenals, that it does not want to be drawn into any further conflict and that Jewish settlers in the West Bank must be controlled because they could also further destabilize the area, Kurtzer added.

Ambassador Eric Edelman, a former State Department and White House official who served as then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s top deputy assistant for national security affairs, said Israelis are grateful for the outpouring of international support they have received, but understand that there is a “brief half.” lives” once military operations begin and civilian collateral damage in Gaza takes its toll.

“I think they want to do as much damage as possible to Hamas: its physical infrastructure, kill its leaders and eliminate as many frontline fighters as they can before the international pressure on them becomes so great that they have to do it. stop,” Edelman said.

Publicly criticizing Israel from the start could also hamper the Biden administration’s private efforts, according to Edelman, who said the United States has long preferred to use diplomatic back channels to reduce conflicts in the Middle East, pointing to a similar conflict between
Israel and Hamas in the 2008-09 Gaza war and subsequent fighting in 2012 and 2014.

Biden adopted a similar tactic during a clash between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, when the president avoided commenting publicly on Israeli military strikes, despite facing increased pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to call for an end to the military campaign. Instead, the president focused on behind-the-scenes diplomacy to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end the 11-day conflict.

John F. Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, was pressed Friday on how the administration can trust Israel to respect international rules of war and the Geneva Convention when at least half of the 1,900 people are already killed in Israeli airstrikes are women. and kids.

“We do not want any more innocent lives to be lost or suffered as a result of the conflict,” Kirby said. “We regularly and will continue to speak with our Israeli counterparts on issues relating to the law of armed conflict and respect for innocent human life.”

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