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U.S. urges Israel against Gaza ground invasion, pushes surgical campaign

The Biden administration is urging Israel to rethink its plans for a major ground offensive in the Gaza Strip and instead to opt for a more “surgical” operation using aircraft and special operations forces carrying out precise, targeted raids on high-value Hamas targets and infrastructure, according to five U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.

Administration officials have become highly concerned about the potential repercussions of a full ground assault, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, and they increasingly doubt that it would achieve Israel’s stated goal of eliminating Hamas. They also are concerned that it could derail negotiations to release nearly 200 hostages, particularly as diplomats think they have made “significant” advances in recent days to free a number of them, potentially including some Americans, one of the officials said.

The Biden administration also is worried that a ground invasion could result in numerous casualties among Palestinian civilians as well as Israeli soldiers, potentially triggering a dramatic escalation of hostilities in the region, the officials said. U.S. officials think a targeted operation would be more conducive to hostage negotiations, less likely to interrupt humanitarian aid deliveries, less deadly for people on both sides and less likely to provoke a wider war in the region, the officials said.

At a moment when many Israelis feel rage and grief over the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, there has been considerable public pressure on Israeli officials to mount a sweeping ground incursion into Gaza. Israeli officials said Friday they had expanded ground operations, but the scope or nature of the expansion was unclear.

In public, President Biden and his top officials have indicated support for a planned ground offensive if Israel concludes that that is its best move, while adding that they are asking “tough questions” about the idea. The private advice is a significant departure from the administration’s public posture, and it is a distinct shift from the administration’s position in the days immediately after the Hamas attack inside Israel.

The White House declined to comment on the administration’s push for a surgical operation instead of a full-scale ground invasion, an effort that has not previously been reported. Officials pointed to Biden’s comments stating that Israel makes its own military decisions.

But those involved say the administration’s change of posture is unmistakable — and intentional. “They have clearly shifted from an initial ‘We have your back; we’ll do whatever you want’ to now ‘You really need to rethink your strategy.’ And they’re doing it in a careful way,” said a person familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private and sensitive deliberations.

Despite their private warnings, American officials do not have great confidence that Israel will reverse its intent to wage a large-scale ground offensive. Although the United States has considerable leverage over Israel as its largest military, political and economic backer, U.S. officials have not threatened to withdraw support or impose any consequences on the Jewish state if it forges ahead with its own plans.

On the contrary, the Biden administration is working to provide Israel a new $14 billion security package to replenish its Iron Dome missile interceptors and its munitions and to provide additional military financing.

As U.S. officials have conveyed their preference for a lighter operation, Israeli forces have conducted limited raids into Gaza in recent days, although it is not clear that those forays were in response to Washington’s urging.

The Israel Defense Forces announced Friday that a targeted, sea-launched raid had been conducted in the southern Gaza Strip against “Hamas military infrastructure.” A previous ground raid, early Thursday morning, was designed to strike Hamas rocket launching positions, reveal enemy positions and “prepare the ground for the next stages of the war,” the IDF said.

U.S. officials said they are advising Israel to adopt such raids as a central part of its strategy for hunting Hamas. But Israel has cast them as part of “preparations for the next stages of combat,” an apparent reference to the full-scale ground offensive. Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the IDF, said Friday that Israel was expanding its ground operations, but he did not announce an invasion or say that forces had entered Gaza.

U.S. Defense Department officials recently dispatched a team of officers, including Marine Lt. Gen. James Glynn, to Israel to offer recommendations on how to carry out military operations in an urban environment. Although Glynn served in conventional operations in the Iraq War as an infantryman, he also has deep experience in counterterrorism, having led a Special Operations task force that hunted Islamic State militants in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2017 and 2018.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that Glynn and his colleagues were dispatched “to help Israeli officials think through the kinds of questions that they need to consider as they conduct their planning, including advice on mitigating civilian casualties.” Pentagon officials, asked whether they were recommending that Israel lean on surgical strikes and raids, declined to comment but did not dispute the idea.

Palestinian gunmen from Hamas broke through Israel’s sophisticated border fence with Gaza on Oct. 7 and killed at least 1,400 Israelis, hunting civilians in their homes and cars, burning people alive, and taking scores of people hostage, including children. Israel responded with a full siege of Gaza that has cut off food, water, electricity and fuel, as well as with an unrelenting air bombardment campaign that Palestinian health authorities say has killed more than 7,000 people, many of them children. On Friday, officials in Gaza reported that internet connectivity had plummeted.

The Israeli siege and airstrikes in Gaza, a densely populated enclave of more than 2 million people, have led to a deepening humanitarian crisis, and the Biden administration is facing increasing pressure to respond to the growing reports of civilian suffering. Only a handful of aid trucks have been able to get into Gaza, and U.S. officials so far have not been able to reach a deal with Israel, Egypt and Hamas that would establish a humanitarian corridor and allow at least 400 Palestinian Americans stuck in Gaza to leave.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks, many senior U.S. officials privately supported a massive Israeli response, which they viewed as necessary to deter Iran and Hezbollah from opening a second front in Israel’s north.

But as days went by and Israeli officials briefed Washington on their plans, U.S. officials became increasingly concerned that a ground assault would turn into an open-ended quagmire. After Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel on Oct. 13, Pentagon leaders began sharing their worries with the State Department.

Three days later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a nearly eight-hour meeting with Israel’s war cabinet in Tel Aviv, and U.S. diplomats left the meetings worried that the Israelis had not developed a sound and workable military plan. Although the meeting dealt mostly with humanitarian issues, officials also discussed military strategy, and U.S. officials came away more concerned, not less, about the prospects of regional escalation.

They were particularly concerned that a sweeping offensive would put U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria at risk from Iranian proxy groups, increasing the chance of a direct military confrontation between the United States and Iran. U.S. personnel have come under repeated assault from rockets and one-way attack drones in the past 10 days, prompting Biden to say he had warned Iran that he would respond if it continued. The United States launched airstrikes Thursday in eastern Syria in response, but at least one more attack was recorded Friday in Iraq.

As doubts about the advisability of a ground invasion have grown in the United States and even among some in Israel, some Jewish Democratic lawmakers have called for a humanitarian pause in the violence to allow aid to get into Gaza. Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), Sara Jacobs (Calif.) and Susan Wild (Pa.) issued a joint statement this week calling for such a pause.

“While we are grateful for the Biden administration’s successful efforts to deliver humanitarian aid through the Rafah crossing over the weekend, it is clear this aid alone is insufficient,” the lawmakers said. “The 2 million civilians in Gaza cannot survive without access to water, food, medicine, and fuel — and resources cannot get to those who need it without a temporary cessation of hostilities for humanitarian workers to do their jobs safely.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have strongly opposed any criticism of Israel’s actions and have condemned liberal Democrats for questioning Israel’s tactics. “Not standing with our greatest ally, Israel, weakens the global fight against terrorism,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), who chairs the House Republican Conference, said this week.

But Biden and his top officials have noticeably shifted their public rhetoric in recent days.

In remarks at the White House in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Biden said the United States would provide Israel any support it needed, adding that he had told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Full stop.” He made no mention of Palestinian civilians.

But in the first week of Israel’s air campaign, the IDF dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza in addition to cutting off access to water and other basic necessities. As Blinken met the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Palestinian Authority, the Arab allies reinforced concerns that the civilian suffering and deaths were infuriating their domestic populations and raising the specter of mass instability.

Concern about the unfolding crisis has been evident in the United States as well, as liberals have been increasingly outspoken in criticizing Biden for not taking stronger action to restrain Israel.

Biden, while maintaining his vocal support of Israel, has shown signs of heeding these messages. This week, he made his most forceful comments to date about the importance of keeping in mind a vision for the Middle East’s future and underlined his calls for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden also stressed that Israel must limit civilian casualties, regardless of whether that poses a “burden” on its military forces.

“When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next,” Biden said. “And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution. And it means a concentrated effort from all parties — Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders — to put us on a path toward peace.”

The president’s instincts to be wary of a wide-scale assault by Israel match his history on earlier conflicts, especially the war in Afghanistan. In 2009, as the Obama administration weighed deploying tens of thousands of additional forces there, then-Vice President Biden cautioned President Barack Obama against doing so.

Obama, writing in his 2020 memoir, “A Promised Land,” said Biden had “voiced his misgivings” about surging tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan, counseling that doing so could plunge the United States deeper into a quagmire from which it would be difficult to extricate itself. He was the only top adviser to do so, warning the commander in chief that the Pentagon was not presenting him with a wide range of choices, Obama wrote.

Biden pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan just a few months after becoming president. And he seemed to glancingly refer to the Afghanistan debate while returning home from Israel this month, telling reporters traveling with him that the United States had made “mistakes” after the al-Qaeda attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

He added, “I cautioned the government of Israel not to be blinded by rage.”

Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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