Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
(CNN) — Hours before Israel said it had resumed combat operations against Hamas, the United States pressured its ally to shield Palestinian civilians in one of the most significant diplomatic moves yet in the more than 50-day conflict.
The question now, if a seven-day truce is permanently broken, is whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is prepared to listen.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out American requirements in private talks in Jerusalem with Netanyahu and his war cabinet. More significantly, Blinken made the Biden administration approach clear in unmistakable language in public.
“I underscored the imperative of the United States that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in Northern Gaza not be repeated in the South,” Blinken said in a televised press conference in Tel Aviv. His comments came hours before the lapsing of a seven-day pause in the fighting, which had seen more than 100 hostages released by Hamas.
“I made clear that before Israel resumes major military operations, it must put in place humanitarian civilian protection plans that minimize further casualties of innocent Palestinians,” Blinken said, specifically mentioning the need to safeguard hospitals, powers stations and facilities. He said that Netanyahu had agreed to take steps to protect civilians. But two key questions now will be whether those efforts are genuine and effective and to what extent the Israeli prime minister and his military brass are willing to accommodate US concerns.
The Israel Defense Forces said early Friday that it has resumed operations against Hamas, accusing the group of violating the agreement and firing toward Israel.
Blinken’s talks with top Israeli officials came on a day when there were growing indications that the pause in fighting was increasingly fragile.
His frank tone contrasted with public comments that were more advisory in tone from the Biden administration in the initial stage of the war. Heart-rending scenes of death and mayhem in Gaza opened up the White House to intense domestic criticism from grassroots, young and progressive voters less than a year before the 2024 election.
US officials have been making clear in recent days in private and in anonymous quotes to journalists that they wanted to see Israel take more care when fighting resumes to protect Gazans – even while acknowledging that Hamas embeds its forces in high population centers and in civilian infrastructure. Blinken’s decision to do so publicly reflects an elevated attempt to use US influence following a period in which the administration helped orchestrate the pause to allow many of the hostages to leave Gaza alive.
It also suggests that the White House is not completely buying Israel’s assurances that it takes every possible step to alleviate civilian casualties in its response to the October 7 Hamas terror attack that killed 1,200 people. Blinken noted bluntly, for instance, that he told Netanyahu: “Intent matters. But so does the result.”
The Biden administration makes a significant move
Blinken specifically said that Washington wants Israel to permit civilians who fled to southern Gaza in the first wave of fighting to head back north before Israel resumes operations. And he called for the provision of safe areas in the heavily populated south to allow Palestinians to escape Israeli bombardments. Those details were first reported by CNN’s MJ Lee, Jennifer Hansler and Katie Bo Lillis on Wednesday.
Aaron David Miller, a US Middle East peace negotiator for multiple presidents, noted a significant shift in the administration’s rhetoric.
“The public messaging on the part of the administration from the president on down is if the Israelis are going to continue this campaign, certainly, for any significant duration, they are going to have to deal with two realities,” Miller told CNN International on Thursday.
“Number one, you are going to have to not attack locations where there are densely populated civilians. And number two, you are going to have to allow the continued surging of humanitarian assistance for the roughly half to two-thirds of Gazans who have now been displaced from their homes, many of whom are in the location where the Israelis intend to operate.”
The administration’s tougher tone with Israel is not without risk. While he may be able to alleviate some of the domestic political pressure from his left, President Joe Biden will attract criticism from Republicans who will accuse him of curtailing Israel’s right to defend itself following a horrific terror attack. The strong US focus on curbing civilian casualties could also be exploited by Hamas in its ongoing efforts to use civilian infrastructure as cover for its military operations.
If the Israelis do not heed Blinken’s warnings, the Biden administration will look weak. And if there are again episodes in which hospitals come under siege from Israeli forces or residential areas are bombed and large numbers of innocent Palestinians die, the president’s critics are unlikely to remember the nuances of Blinken’s remarks in Israel.
Increasing US pressure adds another dimension to the political, military and moral dilemma that Israel is facing as it deliberates its next move. Netanyahu had been under increasing heat from families of those still believed to be held hostage in Gaza, including young men and soldiers, to hold off on launching a new offensive until all those captive are freed. That’s a calculation that would keep the initiative in the conflict in the hands of Hamas and could take many days or weeks. The price that Hamas would demand for the return of Israeli soldiers is likely to be far beyond the current ratio of three Palestinians freed from Israeli jails for one Israeli civilian released, and it may be one the government would find it impossible to pay.
The Israeli leader is also weakened because the Hamas attacks, one of the darkest days in Israel’s history, happened on his watch. A New York Times report published Thursday is likely to heighten his vulnerability. The paper cited emails, documents and interviews in revealing that the plans for the Hamas assault were known for more than a year before October 7, but Israeli military and intelligence officials considered they would be impossible for the terror group to pull off. The report said it was unclear whether Netanyahu and other top leaders saw the plan.
Netanyahu told Israelis on Thursday that he swore to eliminate Hamas and nothing would stop him. Given the militant group’s maze of tunnels below Gaza and its embedding in civilian areas, it is not clear if Israel will consider that its operational needs are reconcilable with what Blinken called US “imperatives.”
But for Israel’s standing internationally, US support of the Jewish state will be even more important in a second wave of fighting in Gaza than it was in the initial outbreak of the war. The country is likely to find itself isolated if it is blamed for reigniting the war.
At home, however, Netanyahu is under great political duress from the hard-right members of his coalition, which is critical to his fragile hold on power. Israel also believes that it is fighting an existential threat to its survival and that of the Jewish people. While many foreign powers do not necessarily accept that interpretation of the war against Hamas, this is a mindset that could convince Israel that any action is justified.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told “CNN News Central” on Thursday that “we are going to have to do what we need to do and we’re doing it as best as we can to minimize casualties. But there’s no magic wand and if anyone has a magic wand, let us know and we’ll use it.”
Senior Netanyahu adviser Mark Regev told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the Israeli cabinet had presented maps to Blinken showing what he said were humanitarian safe zones in the southern part of the Gaza Strip to which civilians could flee. He also said that Israel would allow aid to continue to flow to Gazan civilians.
“As we pursue Hamas, and we will pursue Hamas relentlessly,” he said, adding, “At the same time as we pursue our campaign against Hamas, we’ll do all that we can to safeguard Gaza’s civilian population, to keep it out of the crossfire between the IDF and the terrorists, and at the same time, in parallel, of course work (so) that aid enters the Gaza Strip, food, water, medicine and other things for the people of Gaza to limit the level of suffering.”
But the reality is that high intensity warfare in an area as densely populated as Gaza will almost always have disastrous results.
Washington will be watching closely how Israel conducts itself since, in the past, its standards for protecting civilians have fallen short of what much of the rest of the world would accept.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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