Biden administration under growing pressure over Gaza death toll

More senior members of Congress are warning civilian death toll in Gaza has reached 'an intolerable level'

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press conference in Tel Aviv on November 3. AFP
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When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel shortly after the October 7 Hamas attacks, he emphasised Washington’s enduring support for its ally, but made only an oblique reference to Palestinians dying in the Gaza Strip.

“It’s so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians,” Mr Blinken said on October 12, standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We mourn the loss of every innocent life, civilians of every faith, every nationality who have been killed.”

On Friday, Mr Blinken was back in Tel Aviv. While he remained staunchly pro-Israel, his tone on the plight of civilians in Gaza, where more than 9,000 people are reported to have been killed in Israeli strikes, had changed markedly.

“It is very important that when it comes to the protection of civilians who are caught in a crossfire of Hamas’s making that everything be done to protect them and to bring assistance to those who so desperately need it and who are not in any way responsible for what happened on October 7,” Mr Blinken said, this time standing beside Israel’s President Isaac Herzog.

Later, he added: “We need do more to protect the Palestinian civilians. We’ve been clear that, as Israel conducts its campaign to defeat Hamas, how it does so matters.”

His comments come as President Joe Biden's administration ramps up pressure on Israel to try to reduce civilian casualties as it continues to bombard parts of north Gaza in its bid to wipe out Hamas.

The Pentagon this week repeatedly stressed that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is in constant contact with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant, with civilian lives a primary topic of conversation. Israeli strikes on civilian buildings continue seemingly unabated, however.

And Mr Biden is facing growing international and domestic pressure to do more about the Gaza crisis, which has left the US and Israel increasingly isolated on the world stage as they rule out talk of a ceasefire in favour of loosely defined “humanitarian pauses”.

“The political anxiety among Arab allies is increasing,” Ghaith Al Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose research focuses on Arab-Israeli relations, told The National.

“The Jordanians are very worried, Egypt is very worried.”

Cracks are growing in Mr Biden’s Democratic Party, too, with centrist politicians pushing for greater action to stop the killing.

Dick Durbin, the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, this week became the first senator to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

CNN asked Mr Durbin in a Thursday interview whether it was time for a ceasefire. He responded: “I think it is.

“Whatever the rationale from the beginning [of the operation] and has now reached an intolerable level.”

Later, Chris Murphy, a strong Biden ally and a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, stopped short of calling for a ceasefire, but issued a statement saying Israel's military operation in Gaza has been “unacceptable”.

“It's time for Israel's friends to recognise that the current approach is causing an unacceptable level of civilian harm and does not appear likely to achieve the goal of ending the threat from Hamas,” Mr Murphy's statement said.

“I urge Israel to immediately reconsider its approach.”

He told MSNBC that “there is no way but to come to the conclusion that the cost to civilians has been too high”.

“As we learnt in Afghanistan, when you are too casual or too permissive about civilian casualties, that ends up being recruitment material for the very terrorist groups you are fighting … we have reached a point at which the rate of civilian harm here is too high for Israel to sustain, for the world to sustain, and it's time for them to change course,” Mr Murphy added.

Although Mr Biden has recently tweaked his administration's messaging to emphasise concern for Palestinian civilians and the need for humanitarian relief, he is still pushing Congress to endorse a $106 billion emergency funding request, which includes billions of dollars in additional military aid for the Israeli military, as well as for Ukraine.

And the White House has said it is not drawing any “red lines” for Israel as it responds to Hamas, while the Pentagon admitted it provides zero monitoring of how its ally uses American munitions in Gaza.

A Senate group led by Tim Kaine, also on the Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement late on Thursday calling on the Biden administration to push for a short-term pause that allows humanitarian aid to reach the hardest-hit areas in Gaza.

“The failure to adequately protect non-combatant civilians risks dramatic escalation of the conflict in the region and imposes severe damage on prospects for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians … it is nearly impossible to deliver sufficient humanitarian aid to protect civilian life under current conditions,” the letter states.

Last month, more than 400 people who work for members of the US Congress signed an anonymous letter calling for Washington to demand an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war.

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Updated: November 03, 2023, 6:04 PM