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Biden warns Netanyahu the situation in Gaza is ‘unacceptable’

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the United States would reassess its policy toward the war in Gaza if the Jewish state does not take immediate steps to address the disastrous humanitarian situation in the enclave and protect aid workers.

“In the coming hours and days, we will be looking for concrete, tangible steps that they’re taking,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.

The phone call between the two leaders came three days after seven workers from the José Andrés-run World Central Kitchen were killed by an Israeli strike on a clearly marked convoy, igniting outrage in the United States and abroad. The president held the call with Netanyahu specifically because of the deadly strike, Kirby said, adding that Biden was “shaken” by the attack.

In Thursday’s call, Biden “made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers,” according to a White House summary of the call. “He made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

It marked the first time Biden has indicated a willingness to reassess his unwavering support of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, as pressure grows among prominent Democrats to condition weapons sales to Israel as the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 33,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The president’s rhetoric has grown increasingly sharp regarding Israel’s handling of the crisis, but until now he had not directly warned Israel of consequences if it does not change course.

It also marked a rare moment in recent decades when the United States has suggested its support for Israel was anything but unconditional.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the message in Brussels on Thursday. And Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally and a staunch supporter of Israel, said the United States is “at that point” where conditions must be placed on military aid to Israel.

The changing dynamic comes as Israel plans to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where up to 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering in decrepit conditions after fleeing there under Israeli orders. U.S. officials have warned Israel against a major campaign in Rafah that would endanger numerous civilians.

“If Benjamin Netanyahu were to order the [Israel Defense Forces] into Rafah at scale … and make no provision for civilians or for humanitarian aid, I would vote to condition aid to Israel,” Coons said on CNN. “I’ve never said that before. I’ve never been here before.”

Despite the explicit warning, the White House offered no details about how it would assess whether Israel had complied with Biden’s demands, or how U.S. policy could change if the administration determined it had not done so.

“If we don’t see changes from their side, there will be changes from our side,” Kirby said. “But I’m not going to preview what that might look like.” He declined to say whether Washington might suspend military aid to Israel.

Among the changes Biden wants to see, Kirby said, are “a dramatic increase in humanitarian aid getting in, additional crossings opened up, and a reduction in violence against civilians.” He added that the United States expected to see Israel not just “announcing” changes, but “executing” and “implementing” them.

Later Thursday, Israel announced initial steps to address Biden’s demands. They included opening the Ashdod port for direct delivery of aid into Gaza; opening Israel’s Erez crossing to help facilitate the delivery of aid into northern Gaza, where law and order has collapsed and aid groups have warned that famine is already underway; and increasing aid deliveries from Jordan.

The White House welcomed the moves, saying they “must now be fully and rapidly implemented.” U.S. policy on Gaza “will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these and other steps,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

The White House summary of the Biden-Netanyahu call said Biden told the Israeli prime minister that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was “unacceptable” and called for an “immediate ceasefire.”

Israel launched its military campaign in Gaza after Hamas militants stormed through the border and killed 1,200 people, including many civilians, and took 253 people hostage.

Biden on Thursday urged Netanyahu to “empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home,” according to the White House, suggesting that the Israeli leader could be doing more to secure a six-week cease-fire that would see the release of many of the remaining hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7. Biden officials have been pushing for the cease-fire for months.

Biden and his top aides have repeatedly pressed Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, reduce civilian casualties and protect relief workers. But they have so far been unwilling to impose any punitive actions even as Netanyahu has become increasingly defiant of U.S. requests despite unprecedented military support.

Andrés, a renowned chef and the founder of World Central Kitchen, told Reuters on Wednesday that Israel targeted his workers “systematically, car by car.” He questioned how the Biden administration could provide humanitarian assistance in Gaza while continuing to supply Israel with weapons.

Netanyahu told Biden during their call that the Israel Defense Forces had not targeted the convoy deliberately, Kirby said. Israeli officials have apologized for the strike.

Despite increased statements of anger and frustration over Israel’s conduct in Gaza, Biden and his senior aides have emphasized that U.S. support for Israel remains strong, particularly as the threat of an escalation with Iran and Hezbollah has risen this week. An Israeli airstrike in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Monday killed two senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, along with five other officers.

“Our support for Israel’s self-defense remains ironclad,” Kirby said Thursday. “They face a range of threats, and the United States isn’t going to walk away from helping Israel defend itself. That said … the president does and still believes that the manner in which they are defending themselves against a Hamas threat needs to change.”

Israel’s incursion into Gaza has created a humanitarian catastrophe, with dozens of children having died of malnutrition and starvation, according to the United Nations. More than 80 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced, and the entire population is facing high levels of acute food insecurity, according to U.S. officials and aid groups.

About 200 humanitarian aid workers, mostly Palestinians, have been killed during the war, which a top U.N. official said is nearly three times the death toll recorded in any other conflict in a year. Biden is close to Andrés, whom he calls a “friend,” and the killing of the World Central Kitchen workers has moved the president to use significantly stronger language than he has previously during the six-month war.

Netanyahu has defied the United States on a series of major issues despite Biden’s support. The prime minister has rejected or brushed off Biden’s calls for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his demands that more aid be allowed into Gaza and his warnings against a full-scale operation in Rafah.

Kirby said the issues of humanitarian aid and the pending Rafah invasion are inextricably linked.

“Today’s call was really focused on humanitarian assistance, civilian casualties, and that includes humanitarian aid workers,” Kirby said. But “you can’t talk about Rafah and the possibility of operations going after those Hamas battalions in Rafah without also talking about the humanitarian situation down there, which is dire.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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