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US pressing Israel to move civilians out of way if Israel attacks in southern Gaza

<i>Mohammed Salem/Reuters</i><br/>Palestinian children walk among the houses destroyed at Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on November 29.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinian children walk among the houses destroyed at Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on November 29.

By MJ Lee, Jennifer Hansler and Katie Bo Lillis, CNN

(CNN) — Biden administration officials are discussing with their Israeli counterparts how to protect thousands of civilians who fled to southern Gaza should the Israel Defense Forces target the area once the pause in fighting with Hamas ultimately ends, according to multiple US officials.

Among the many options that US and Israeli officials are actively deliberating include moving civilians who went south at the onset of the war back up north once military operations there have ended, one senior US official told CNN. While much of northern Gaza has already been decimated from the fighting and airstrikes, Israel has made clear it is bent on finishing its military operations there.

So far the IDF has warned displaced Palestinians against returning from the south. Moving civilians back north would represent a significant humanitarian challenge, as an estimated 40% to 50% of structures in northern Gaza have been damaged, according to satellite analysis by independent researchers.

That challenge is one of the major reasons US officials are keen on seeing a surge of humanitarian aid into northern Gaza. Multiple US officials have also stressed the need to create areas in the south that are clearly understood to be protected for civilians.

A major reason Israel is expected to begin focusing its military operations in southern Gaza is that intelligence suggests Hamas leadership has fled to that region, according to one US official. That official did not say whether this was US or Israeli intelligence.

In private, Biden administration officials – including President Joe Biden himself – are telling their Israeli counterparts that they do not want to see the IDF resume the kinds of air strikes from earlier in the war that led to massive casualties and widespread destruction, multiple officials told CNN. Instead, Israel must be “more cautious, more careful, more deliberate, and more precise in their targeting,” one senior administration official said.

While it’s not clear whether Israel would ultimately agree, some US officials expressed optimism that Israel was at least receptive to considering such ideas. “There is an understanding that a different type of campaign has to be conducted in the south than was conducted in the north,” another senior administration official said.

While US and Israeli officials have been in constant contact throughout the Israel-Hamas war on the IDF’s military tactics, those discussions have taken on new importance as the truce brokered by the US, Qatar and Egypt could soon come to an end. Israel has made clear to the US that it intends eventually to turn its focus on the southern part of the enclave after the current pause in fighting lifts.

During discussions in Doha this week about extending the truce, Israeli officials have made clear that even the release of all hostages would not be enough to prompt a permanent ceasefire, multiple Israeli sources said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said publicly that Israel intends to continue with its war once the truce ends, pursuing the goal of eradicating Hamas’ ability to conduct an attack like the one on October 7.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is continuing the Biden administration’s push to extend the current “humanitarian pause,” saying on Wednesday that “its continuation, by definition, means that more hostages would be coming home, more assistance would be getting in.”

“So clearly that’s something we want, and I believe it’s also something that Israel wants,” said Blinken, who will have meetings in Israel on Thursday.

Once women and children hostages have been released, negotiations will continue to extend the pause in fighting to secure the release of other hostages including elderly men and, eventually, military-aged adults and soldiers.

The US’ pressure campaign comes as Biden confronts divisions within his own party over Israel.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are struggling to unify behind aid to Israel, with some pressing for humanitarian-related conditions. Those who are opposed to putting conditions on the aid have argued that the administration is already heavily engaged in working with Israel to ensure that international laws are being adhered to.

Meanwhile, Biden’s campaign arm on Wednesday tweeted out a key line from his speech last week that emphasized the need for a quick and peaceful end to the fighting, suggesting a contrast from the president’s initial steadfast support of Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Hamas unleashed a terrorist attack because they fear nothing more than Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace. To continue down the path of terror, violence, killing, and war is to give Hamas what they seek. We can’t do that,” Biden’s political account tweeted.

Biden himself is focused on “the need to have spaces in the south like hospitals, like UN shelters, that are zones where civilians can gather and know that they will not suffer bombardment,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power said in an interview with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. “These are the very, very detailed conversations that are going on. There is receptivity to this message.”

Many questions remain about “the day after” the war for Gaza, including who ultimately assumes authority for governing the enclave. There is a sense among many US allies that Hamas cannot be fully defeated militarily, but also an understanding that Israel won’t withdraw from Gaza until it feels the country’s security is no longer at risk, a senior European diplomat working directly on the issues told CNN earlier this month.

The US has repeatedly stressed in public and private that it will not accept a re-occupation of Gaza, and voiced its view that the Palestinian territories need to be run by a unified government, ultimately under a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority. However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is widely unpopular, has rejected the idea of taking over administration of Gaza on the heels of the Israeli incursion.

One idea that has been raised, according to the senior European diplomat, is a multi-national force to provide security for Gaza on an interim basis. The diplomat said it would not be feasible for the force to include Western troops. Arab partners have not expressed enthusiasm at being involved, and have suggested they would need to see a clear horizon for a Palestinian state if they were to take part, the diplomat said.

Kaitlan Collins contributed to this story.

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