Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will urge the Israeli government to agree to a series of brief pauses in military operations in Gaza to allow for the safe release of hostages and the distribution of humanitarian aid, White House officials said Thursday.
The message comes after President Biden revealed on Wednesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had previously agreed to briefly halt shelling on October 20 to allow the release of two Americans, Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter Natalie Raanan, 17.
The push for what US officials call “humanitarian pauses” is one of several topics Mr Blinken will raise with Mr Netanyahu and other officials when he arrives in Israel on Friday for another round of diplomacy amid fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas, the group that controls They tread.
Speaking to reporters before boarding a plane bound for the Middle East, Mr Blinken said part of his mission would be to help keep civilians in Gaza safe while Israel waged war.
“We have seen in recent days how Palestinian civilians continue to bear the brunt of this, this action,” the secretary of state said. “And it’s important that the United States is committed to ensuring that everything possible is done to protect civilians.”
At the White House, Mr. Biden said some of the American dual citizens who have been trying to leave Gaza since the start of the war have managed to cross into Egypt.
“Good news: Today we got 74 Americans out, dual citizens,” he said.
White House officials said the request for pauses was far different from a total ceasefire, which the Biden administration believes would benefit Hamas by allowing it to recover from intense Israeli bombardment.
But Mr Biden is under increasing pressure to respond as people in Gaza struggle to find food, water, medicine and fuel. An attack on a Gaza refugee camp this week killed dozens of people, although Israeli officials said they had killed a top Hamas leader.
At a fundraiser in Minneapolis on Wednesday night, a protester confronted Mr. Biden and asked him to call for a ceasefire. “I think we need a break,” Mr. Biden replied, adding: “A break is to give time for the prisoners to get out.”
The president then revealed a pre-arranged break for the two American hostages, using a shared nickname for Mr Netanyahu.
“I’m the guy who convinced Bibi to call for a cease-fire to let the prisoners out,” Mr. Biden said. National security officials later said that despite the president’s use of the word “ceasefire,” he was referring to a brief pause in Israeli bombing rather than a broader cessation of hostilities.
Mr. Biden’s comments came a week after Mr. Blinken delivered a similar message to the United Nations Security Council.
“Israel must take all possible precautions to avoid harm to civilians,” the state secretary said. “This means that food, medicine, water and other aid must reach Gaza and the areas where people need it. This means that civilians must be able to move out of the way. This means that humanitarian breaks must be taken into account for these purposes.”
That message echoes what some humanitarian groups have been saying over the past few days. The International Rescue Committee’s latest statement called for such breaks as a way to ensure aid workers are safe as they try to help get supplies to Gaza.
“This would allow humanitarian supplies to be delivered and allow staff to assess needs and deliver aid,” the group said. “It could also allow for the evacuation of the sick and wounded who cannot be cared for inside Gaza, and allow negotiations for the release of the hostages.”
The United States’ push for pauses is unlikely to satisfy Israel’s critics, some of whom are members of the president’s party. Several Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced a resolution “calling for an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”
But administration officials argue that more limited breaks could help address Gaza’s humanitarian problems without preventing Israel from responding to the slaughter of more than 1,400 people in Hamas attacks on October 7.
“What we have said should be considered and explored are temporary localized humanitarian pauses to allow aid to reach certain populations and perhaps even to help evacuate people who want to get out, move further south” Gaze, John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday. “We support it. We do not support a ceasefire at this time.”
White House officials said they were pushing for location- and duration-limited pauses for two purposes: the possibility of future hostage releases and the urgent need to clear the way for the delivery and distribution of aid to Palestinians living in Gaza.
Officials said negotiations for the release of additional hostages were continuing, with Qatari representatives acting as mediators. If those talks succeed, the officials said they would call on Israel to agree to end its operations in the area where Hamas would release the hostages.
It happened on October 20, officials said. Mr Netanyahu agreed to ensure there would be no shelling in the area where the Red Crescent picked up the two American women. That hiatus ended shortly after the women were released.
US officials have said they are also concerned about the delivery of humanitarian aid, which is beginning to trickle into Gaza by trucks entering through the Rafah Gate on the Gaza-Egypt border.
The concern, officials say, is that the trucks need a way to safely deliver aid to neighborhoods without the risk of being hit by an Israeli airstrike or caught in the middle of fighting on the ground. And the official said aid is of no use if neighborhood residents are too afraid to leave their homes to get food or water.
Mr Blinken will call on Israel to consider short breaks to allow safe passage for aid trucks.
White House officials said Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials remained opposed to a broad ceasefire, but appeared receptive to the idea of further pauses in fighting for that purpose.
Ron Dermer, Mr. Netanyahu’s top adviser, told reporters this week that Israel had twice briefly halted operations in some areas of Gaza to facilitate the evacuation of hostages freed by Hamas. But that was a “temporary suspension of operations to physically get your hostages to safety,” he said, not a compromise on Israel’s goal of dismantling Hamas.
“If there is going to be a proposal to release our hostages, obviously we will do everything we can to make sure they can get to wherever they need to be safely,” Mr Dermer said.
Kirby said Thursday that the United States would continue to work with Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli government in the coming days.
“We were able to work with him before to help get the Americans out,” Kirby said. “So we certainly hope that such cooperation will continue. But each of his examples, each attempt to get a break will be unique in its own way. And that will require negotiations and diplomacy.”