Amid criticism, Biden administration makes plea for civilians trapped in Gaza under Israeli bombardment

Palestinians pull a boy from the rubble after an Israeli strike on the Zaroub family house in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct.24, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Palestinians pull a boy from the rubble after an Israeli strike on the Zaroub family house in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Oct. 24, 2023. (Hatem Ali / Associated Press)

The Biden administration is facing mounting criticism that its support of Israel is ignoring massive civilian casualties, a potential war crime, while it also confronts ripples of dissent within its own governing ranks.

After days of pointed complaints from King Abdullah II of Jordan, the United Nations and international humanitarian agencies, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Tuesday made his deepest plea to date for the safety of Palestinian civilians living under steady Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip.

“Every civilian life is equally valuable," Blinken told the U.N. Security Council. "We know Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people, and Palestinian civilians are not to blame for the carnage committed by Hamas. Palestinian civilians must be protected."

That includes stopping Hamas from using civilians as human shields and urging Israel to avoid harming civilians while allowing the flow of food, water and medicine into Gaza, Blinken said. He advocated for a series of "humanitarian pauses" to ease the Gaza crisis, something the U.S. vetoed in a U.N. resolution just last week.

According to figures provided by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry and the U.N., more than 5,000 Palestinians — nearly half of them women and children — have been killed in Gaza by Israeli strikes launched in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants on Israelis in southern Israel that killed more than 1,400. More than 200 people were also abducted, including several American citizens. The U.N. noted at least 30 members of its Gaza-based staff were among the dead.

Israel said Tuesday it executed 400 airstrikes in Gaza overnight. Vast residential sections of Gaza City, home to more than a million people and where Israel maintains that Hamas operates, have been leveled. Reports from Gaza said many of the latest airstrikes targeted southern parts of the coastal enclave, areas where Israel told Gazans they should seek refuge to stay safe.

President Biden and his government were so horrified by the Hamas killings and kidnappings that their "unwavering" support for Israel left little room for consideration of Palestinian civilians, who soon fell victim to Israeli retaliation in a bombing campaign of the densely populated strip of an intensity not seen in years, if ever.

Gradually, though, Biden and others slightly shifted their rhetoric and urged Israel to respect the rules of war, expressing concern for civilian casualties and for the arrival of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip after Israel cut off water, food, electricity and medicine. The denial of basic goods to a besieged population like Gazan Palestinians can also be considered a violation of international humanitarian law.

At an emergency Middle Eastern summit in Cairo over the weekend, Jordan and Egypt — until recently the only Arab countries that recognized Israel — evinced anger and impatience with their neighbor. They adamantly rejected Israeli attempts to force Gaza's Palestinians into their countries, which they said was tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

King Abdullah II, one of Washington's closest allies, said the siege, bombardment and forced displacement constituted "a war crime" and "a red line for all of us."

"Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity and basic necessities would be condemned," said Abdullah, speaking in English to reach his intended audience. "Accountability would be enforced, immediately, unequivocally. ... But not in Gaza."

Abdullah continued: "The message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional. And human rights have boundaries — they stop at borders, they stop at races, and they stop at religions."

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who hosted Tuesday's meeting where Blinken spoke, also scolded the U.S. handling of the Israel-Hamas crisis and ended up infuriating Israel.

The "appalling acts" by Hamas did not justify the "collective punishment" of more than 2 million Palestinians, he said.

"Protecting civilians does not mean ordering more than 1 million people to evacuate to the south, where there is no shelter, no food, no water, no medicine and no fuel — and then continuing to bomb the south itself," Guterres said.

"It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum," he said, recounting the 56 years of "suffocating occupation" in which Palestinians have seen "their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished."

Israel immediately demanded that Guterres step down. In Washington, John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, also bristled at the attempt to place the conflict in context.

"Hamas is to blame. Hamas is to blame," he told reporters.

International humanitarian law that governs the conduct of armed conflict is far more complicated than most casual observers realize. The determination of a war crime, for example, which is technically a "grave breach" of the rules of conduct, can depend on numerous factors, including the status of the participants in the conflict. Generally, however, the "reckless" or "negligent" killing of civilians is considered a major violation of international law.

Asked repeatedly if the State Department has been able to judge whether Israel is obeying the laws of war, spokesman Matthew Miller accurately replied that such a determination would have to be made by lawyers and a tribunal, such as the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Biden, Blinken and other U.S. officials have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders to respect humanitarian law, Miller said.

U.S. officials say Israel has always insisted it is targeting military objectives in its crushing bombardments, even though the number of noncombatant deaths has soared. Biden administration officials have generally been willing to take at face value Israel's assertions that military targets exist even in civilian areas such as residential apartment buildings and hospitals.

"You have to remember the context in which Israel is carrying out those strikes, and that is against an opponent, a terrorist organization, that has embedded its infrastructure inside civilian buildings, in schools, in hospitals, under schools, under hospitals, inside residential apartment buildings," Miller said. "Israel has a legitimate right to carry out military obligations targeting a foreign terrorist organization. It should do that in a way that minimizes, to the maximum extent possible, civilian harm. That’s what we’ve made clear to them."

In addition to rattling Arab allies, the administration's full-throated support for Israel triggered ripples of discontent within the State Department among some officers who said failure to acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians could erode support for Israel and call into question U.S. credibility.

Josh Paul, a decade-long employee of the State agency that oversees political-military affairs, including the sales of weapons, publicly resigned, saying Israel's heavy-handed response to what he called Hamas' monstrous attacks, and U.S. support for that response, would lead only to more suffering for Palestinians and Israelis.

Other rumblings of discontent have been reported, especially among younger officers inside Foggy Bottom who are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Senior State Department officials said dissent within an agency that employs more than 70,000 people was not unusual and in fact welcomed.

Still, Blinken penned a rare pep talk to "the Team" when he returned last week from a whirlwind crisis diplomacy mission in Israel and six Arab nations.

"As we go through this challenging period, please: devote extra care and attention to each other. Let’s demonstrate the humanity, the empathy, and the grace within our own community that we strive to build in the world," Blinken said in the note distributed to employees.

"And let us also be sure to sustain and expand the space for debate and dissent that makes our policies and our institution better.

"We have a difficult stretch ahead," he said. "The risk of greater turmoil and strife is real. And yet, where this crisis goes from here is not inevitable. It will come down, in no small part, to how America — and each and every one of us — leads in this critical period."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.