Biden administration officials have advised Israel to end its large-scale ground and air campaign in the Gaza Strip within weeks and transition to a more targeted phase of its war against Hamas, U.S. officials said on Thursday. Thursday.
Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, met with Israeli leaders on Thursday to discuss the direction of the war. Sullivan did not specify a timetable for the transition, but four US officials said Biden wants Israel to shift to more precise tactics in about three weeks. The officials requested anonymity to discuss the president's thinking.
“I want you to focus on how to save civilian lives, not to stop going after Hamas, but to be more careful,” Biden said Thursday after a speech on prescription drug costs at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
The new phase the Americans envision would involve smaller groups of elite forces moving in and out of Gaza's population centers, carrying out more precise missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels, officials said.
The moment appeared to be the most definitive effort yet by the United States to rein in Israel in its campaign against Hamas over the attacks it led on October 7, particularly as conditions in Gaza become catastrophic.
Yoav Gallant, Israel's defense minister, said before meeting Sullivan on Thursday that his country's campaign against Hamas would last “more than several months,” the latest sign from Israeli officials that they intend to keep fighting until Hamas be eliminated. He said destroying Hamas, the armed group that carried out the devastating October 7 attacks in Israel, was essential to the security of his country.
Gallant described Hamas as an entrenched organization. “They built infrastructure underground and above ground, and it's not easy to destroy it,” Gallant said. “It will require a period of time; it will last more than several months.”
U.S. officials insisted the two positions were not in direct conflict. Israel's efforts to pursue Hamas leaders will continue for months, even after the transition from higher to lower intensity operations occurs, they said.
During their meetings in Israel on Thursday, Israeli leaders presented Sullivan with their own timeline for transitioning from a large-scale campaign to a more targeted one. His timeline was slower than that favored by Biden and some of his advisers.
American officials emphasized that Mr. Sullivan did not direct or order Israeli leaders to make the transition.
Still, U.S. efforts to speed up the transition come as differences between the United States and Israel have come to light. Biden said this week that Israel was losing international support due to the “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, a much harsher assessment than his previous public statements in which he urged greater care to protect civilians.
In the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acceded to the Biden administration's advice – that Israel allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza and take steps to reduce civilian casualties – after initially rejecting them outright.
Netanyahu's office issued a statement about the US desire for a more specific phase, saying only that “Prime Minister Netanyahu has made clear that Israel will continue the war until we complete all of its objectives.”
Sullivan also heard from Israeli officials about their concerns about a broader regional conflict as their military exchanges strikes with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon across Israel's northern border.
“The international community, and the United States in particular, must take swift action to ensure that this threat is eliminated,” the office of Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet and former military chief of staff, said in a statement. . The statement noted that Hezbollah and Hamas share an ally and sponsor in Iran.
Israel's determination to continue its siege of Gaza comes as Philippe Lazzarini, head of the United Nations agency that helps the Palestinians, described conditions in the Palestinian territory as a “living hell.”
Fighting in Gaza appears to have intensified this week; Israel said on Wednesday that 10 of its soldiers had been killed in a single day.
More than two months of air and artillery strikes have forced hundreds of thousands of Gazans into makeshift camps without enough food or water and with almost nonexistent health services, Lazzarini said in a speech Wednesday hours after visiting southern Gaza.
He described Gazans as “desperate and hungry people” and said the sight of a truck carrying humanitarian aid now causes chaos, with people stopping the convoys and eating what they can get from the trucks on the streets.
“Civil order is collapsing,” he said.
“We are still distributing whatever food we manage to bring, but often it is just one bottle of water and one can of tuna a day, per family, which is usually six or seven people,” he said.
The Netanyahu government and the Biden government have mostly tried to paper over their divisions since the attack that killed at least 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7. Israel has responded with more than two months of bombing and a ground invasion of Gaza that have killed at least 15,000 people, and probably thousands more, according to Gaza health officials, and forced most of the 2.2 million of inhabitants of the territory to flee their homes.
The conflict has forced Biden to confront the limits of his influence over Israel, which receives $3.8 billion a year in US security assistance.
Most US arms sales come with conditions; Ukraine, for example, has been prohibited from firing US-made missiles into Russian territory. Biden could impose a similar limit on how US bombs are used in densely populated civilian areas like Gaza.
But doing so could also diminish Israel's ability to pursue Hamas' tunnels and underground compounds, and would put Biden at odds with the pro-Israel lobby with which he has been sympathetic for many years.
Although Biden has said Israel must do more to protect civilians, he has been firm in supporting its right to respond to the Oct. 7 attack.
The United States and Israel have also disagreed over who should control Gaza after the war. US officials have said the internationally supported Palestinian Authority should control the enclave, while Netanyahu appears to rule it out for now.
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