Biden Says Israel’s Response in Gaza is ‘Over the Top’  

Biden Says Israel’s Response in Gaza is ‘Over the Top’  

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President Joe Biden on Thursday gave his sharpest criticism yet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military campaign, which has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in Gaza.

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top,” Biden said in response to a reporter’s question at the White House.

Biden said he has been “pushing very hard” for a temporary cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages held by Hamas and freeing of Palestinians in Israeli jails. On Wednesday, Netanyahu rejected the deal, calling the terms proposed by Hamas “delusional.”

“I’ve been working tirelessly in this deal,” Biden said, adding that he believes it could be extended to a “sustained pause in the fighting.”

He said he has been pushing to increase humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

“As you know, initially, the president of Mexico, Sissi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in,” Biden said, mistakenly referring to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. “I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate. And talked to Bibi [Netanyahu] to open the gate on Israeli side.”

Biden said this during hastily scheduled remarks in response to a special counsel report released Thursday. The report concluded he willfully retained and disclosed classified military and national security information and cited his memory lapses – a concern for American voters ahead of the November presidential election.

Three-quarters of voters, including half of Democrats, say they have concerns about Biden’s mental and physical health, according to an NBC News poll released this week.

“My memory is fine,” Biden said.

FILE – Palestinians look at a damaged residential building after an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Jan. 10, 2024. The White House on Feb. 8, 2024, cautioned Israel against carrying its military campaign into Rafah.

Warning on Rafah

Earlier Thursday, the White House issued a stern warning to Israel, cautioning the Netanyahu government against carrying its military campaign into the city of Rafah along the border with Egypt, where more than half of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million people have taken shelter.

“Absent any full consideration of protecting civilians at that scale in Gaza, military operations right now would be a disaster for those people, and it’s not something that we would support,” said National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby during a White House briefing.

His comments echoed those of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who warned earlier Thursday of the risk of a “gigantic tragedy” as the Palestinians crammed in Rafah “have nowhere to go.”

Kirby underscored the administration does not believe Israel is about to conduct imminent military operations in Rafah, saying it has not “seen any convincing plans” for such an advance.

This despite Netanyahu saying on Wednesday that his government had instructed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to “operate also in Rafah,” as well as Khan Younis, the two places he identified as the “two last strongholds of Hamas.”

Israel is unlikely to swiftly move into Rafah as long as the IDF continues fighting in Khan Younis and around its tunnels, where it thinks that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, a native of Khan Younis, is hiding, said David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations.

“I think Netanyahu and [Israeli Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant want to signal that Israel is not afraid of going into Rafah,” he told VOA. “But I think we are still talking about the signaling phase.”

As Palestinians in Rafah shelter in fear of a more intensive campaign and ground assault, Israeli forces bombed areas of the city, killing at least 11 people.

Cairo concerned

Cairo is concerned that an Israeli advance into Rafah could lead to a mass effort by Gazans to escape across the border, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

Washington also worries that the conflict could spread into Egypt, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

“What could happen here with the relationship with Egypt? What will happen if the Palestinians try and rush into Egypt? How are you going to deal with that? Those are the kinds of questions that are being asked [by the U.S. to the Israelis],” Rynhold told VOA.

Despite its increasingly blunt public warnings to Israel, the U.S. remains a staunch supporter of Israel’s military campaign to eliminate Hamas.

So far Biden has refrained from using Washington’s considerable leverage, said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace with experience in Middle East peace negotiations under various U.S. administrations.

That leverage includes the possibility of reducing military aid or diplomatic support at the United Nations, where more than 150 countries have called for a cease-fire.

“Those levers have been available since the beginning of this crisis, but he hasn’t pulled any of them,” he told VOA.

Kirby pushed back against questions about why Biden would not do more to rein in Netanyahu.

The notion that the administration has not tried to influence the way the Israelis have been prosecuting military operations is “just not true,” Kirby told VOA during Thursday’s briefing. “And they’ve been receptive to many of our lessons learned and perspectives we share.”

Rynhold said Biden is likely withholding U.S. leverage for when he may need to restrain Israel from broadening the conflict, particularly against Lebanon.

FILE – Soldiers and civil defense workers gather near a car damaged in Bazouriyeh, Lebanon, Jan. 20, 2024. An Israeli drone strike on the car, near the Lebanese port city of Tyre, killed two people, the state-run National News Agency reported.

Hezbollah-led forces have been attacking Israeli communities and military posts along the Lebanon-Israel border on a near-daily basis since the October 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 people in Israel.


The White House said it is optimistic that there is still a path toward a temporary cease-fire, despite Netanyahu’s public dismissal of the plan that highlighted the divide between the two allies.

Kirby said that “conversations are still happening” and Biden is “optimistic.” Biden is set to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington next week as part of his push for a deal.

The Carnegie Endowment’s Miller warned that a deal may be elusive because “neither Hamas nor the Israelis right now are really interested.”

“There’s no urgency for either of them in a comprehensive sort of cessation of hostilities,” he said. “The only people that appear to be in a hurry is the Biden administration.”

Biden is facing intense backlash from Arab and Muslim Americans. In an effort to repair relations, his aides met Thursday with Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan.

The state has a high percentage of Muslims, and their votes could determine whether the president can hold on to the crucial swing state in the November presidential election.

VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.  » …
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