During a trip to Israel, America’s top diplomat pushed Tel Aviv to agree to limited “humanitarian pauses” to allow aid into Gaza and facilitate negotiations for Hamas to release prisoners. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said there would not be a temporary pause in the fighting.
On Friday, Secretary of State Blinken met with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv for the second time since Hamas attacked southern Israel on October 7. During the face-to-face with Netanyahu, the American diplomat requested that Israel allow for humanitarian pauses to take place in Gaza.
After the Hamas attack, Tel Aviv ordered a complete siege of the Gaza Strip. The region’s 2.3 million residents have had their communication, food, water, and fuel cut off by Israel. Tel Aviv has allowed only a small percentage of humanitarian assistance needed to sustain the enclave’s population.
Blinken explained that humanitarian pauses could be utilized to deliver crucial aid to the Palestinian people and facilitate the release of prisoners held by Hamas. “We believe that each of these efforts would be facilitated by humanitarian pauses, by arrangements on the ground that increased security for civilians and permit the more effective and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he said. “We see it as a way also and – and very importantly – of creating a better environment in which hostages can be released.”
The diplomat argued that the aid could be delivered without benefitting Hamas. “A number of legitimate questions were raised in our discussions today, including how to use any period of pause to maximize the flow of humanitarian assistance, how to connect a pause to the release of hostages, how to ensure that Hamas doesn’t use these pauses or arrangements to its own advantage,” Blinken said.
A humanitarian pause is different from a ceasefire. While a ceasefire would bring an end to fighting, the pause proposed by the White House would only halt fighting in select areas of Gaza for a few hours at a time. Still, Netanyahu rejected the proposal. “Israel refuses a temporary ceasefire that does not include the return of our hostages,” he said.
On Thursday, White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said the Biden administration remains firmly against a ceasefire. “We believe that a general ceasefire would benefit Hamas in providing them breathing space and time to continue to plot and execute attacks,” he stated.
Blinken suggests a pausing in fighting is a slight shift in White House policy. After the Hamas attack, Biden offered his full-throated support for Israel. “We stand with Israel. And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack,” Biden said at the time, adding that “if the United States experienced what Israel is experiencing, our response would be swift, decisive and overwhelming.”
However, Israeli military operations in Gaza have killed thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian catastrophe. The death toll in Gaza has crossed 9,000, including nearly 4,000 children. Israeli strikes have targeted communication centers, ambulances, densely populated refugee camps, and bakeries distributing humanitarian aid. Nearly 25 percent of all buildings in northern Gaza have received some damage from the Israeli bombing campaign.
A senior US official told NBC News this has caused the White House to want to hedge its support for Tel Aviv. “If this really goes bad, we want to be able to point to our past statements,” they said.
The change in rhetoric does not appear to reflect a genuine shift in policy. Speaking at a press conference during his trip to Israel, Blinked said, “We stand strongly with and behind Israel in its right and obligation to defend itself, defend its people and take the steps necessary to try to ensure that this never happens again.” He added, “Nothing, nothing has changed.”
If Washington sought to exert pressure on Israel, it could curtail the billions in military assistance it provides to Tel Aviv. Israel receives $3.8 billion in security assistance annually. Additionally, The White House has proposed a $14 billion aid package for Tel Aviv in response to the Hamas attack. On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “We are not going to create any conditions on the support that we are giving Israel to defend itself.”