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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden weighs visit to Israel as water and fuel shortages worsen in Gaza

Israel fired artillery along its northern border with Lebanon on Sunday amid intense clashes with Hezbollah.

By Matthew Rosenberg and Vivek Shankar

President Joe Biden on Monday weighed an extraordinary invitation to visit Israel — a grieving nation on the brink of invading territory that has fallen into a desperate humanitarian crisis, with 2 million people trapped and critical supplies dwindling.

A trip by Biden — after an invitation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the eve of a major escalation of the conflict in the Mideast — would be a remarkable gamble. To accept the invitation would demonstrate U.S. solidarity with Israel, signaling to its rivals like Iran, Syria and Hezbollah that it has the power of the United States behind it at a time of increasing anxiety about a regional war. But it would also tie Biden, and the United States, to the bloodshed in Gaza.

The invitation came as Israelis learned more about the terrorist attacks that, nine days ago, killed more than 1,400 people, making them the deadliest in the country’s history. The military said it now believes 199 people were taken hostage by Hamas, the group that controls the Gaza Strip, nearly 50 more than previously thought.

Israel’s retaliation for those attacks has already surpassed the scope of past conflicts with Hamas, which the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist group. Hundreds of airstrikes have pounded Gaza, and Israel says it has killed at least six senior leaders of Hamas so far.

But the strikes are exacting a growing toll on Gaza’s people: The Palestinian Ministry of Health said Monday that 2,808 people have been killed and 10,850 wounded.

Israel has also declared a “complete siege” to deprive the impoverished enclave of energy, food and water. The result, with Gaza’s borders closed by Israel and Egypt, is a desperate population jammed into an area about the size of Las Vegas, with less food, water, medical supplies and fuel as the days go on.

Gaza’s Interior Ministry said no water had reached the enclave in 10 days, despite remarks from the White House on Sunday that Israel had agreed to restore water to the southern part of the strip.

Israel has warned hundreds of thousands of people to leave northern Gaza for their safety. More than 400,000 people have gone to U.N. shelters that are under deep strain, struggling to supply the flood of evacuees.

Here’s what else to know:

— Israel continued to bombard Gaza, and the enclave’s Interior Ministry said an Israeli airstrike killed five people and wounded at least 15 others in southern Gaza’s city of Rafah. The city is near Gaza’s border with Egypt, where scores of people have gathered in hopes of being allowed passage out.

— Biden has sought to head off a wider conflict with both diplomacy and a show of military might. The Biden administration warned Iran against escalation through back-channel messages with intermediaries in Qatar, Oman and China, its point backed up by a pair of aircraft carriers heading toward the eastern Mediterranean. And the U.S. secretary of state returned to Israel on Thursday for another round of talks in his marathon effort to broker deals — including getting U.S. citizens out of Gaza and aid into it for civilians.

— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the Rafah border crossing with Egypt would reopen, raising hope that food and medicine could be brought into Gaza and foreigners could get out. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem told American citizens in Gaza on Monday to “move closer” to the Rafah crossing if they believed it was “safe” to do so. But hours later, the scores of people who had gathered on the Gaza side of the crossing, toting what they could carry in suitcases, were stuck waiting as diplomatic efforts foundered.

— Amid mounting concerns that the conflict could spread, Israel’s military said it would evacuate people who live within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of the border with Lebanon. Clashes have broken out there in recent days between Israel and Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed group that dominates southern Lebanon, with both sides trading fire across the border.

The prospect of renewed military action in the Middle East comes after years in which the United States has sought to disentangle itself from what came to be called “the forever wars” in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. At the moment, the United States is occupied helping Ukraine beat back invaders from Russia, though not with U.S. troops. That mission has taxed American weapons stores and generated increasing opposition on the hard right.

With Biden’s request for $24 billion in additional aid to Ukraine stalled by House Republicans, the White House and congressional leaders are discussing a broader security package that would combine money for Ukraine with aid for Israel. It would also include additional assistance for Taiwan and funds for enhanced protection of the southwestern U.S. border.

While all this could strain American resources, Biden said the United States could afford to help both Israel and Ukraine. “We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defense,” he said in an interview aired on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday evening. “We have the capacity to do this and we have an obligation to.”

As for his message to Iran and Hezbollah, Biden said it was simple: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.”

So far, the fighting on Israel’s northern border has been limited but alarming. Israeli emergency services said that at least one Israeli civilian was killed and three others wounded in Sunday’s attack on the border community of Shtula. Hezbollah said two of its fighters were killed by Israel’s counterattack.

In a statement, Hezbollah said its missile strike was in response to the death of a Reuters cameraman, Issam Abdallah, along with two other civilians killed in recent clashes in southern Lebanon. The United Nations said its peacekeeping headquarters in Naqoura, Lebanon, was hit by a rocket, but it was not clear whose. The peacekeepers were not in shelters at the time and no one was hurt, officials said.

After the exchange of fire, the Israeli military said it had designated a 2.5-mile area near the Lebanon border as an “isolation zone.” No one would be allowed into the zone, and any civilians already there must stay close to safe rooms in their homes, the military said.

“People are preparing for the worst,” said Shimon Guetta, the chair of the regional council of Ma’ale Yosef, which oversees Shtula. “After what happened in the south, the residents are terrified that could repeat itself here.”

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