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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US to press Israel for ‘pauses’ in war against Hamas

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Dutch Creek Farms in Northfield, Minn., Nov. 1, 2023. President Biden is under increasing pressure to respond to what humanitarian groups have called an urgent crisis for civilians in Gaza.

By Michael D. Shear

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will urge the Israeli government to agree to a series of brief cessations of military operations in the Gaza Strip to allow for hostages to be released safely and for humanitarian aid to be distributed, White House officials said Thursday.

The message comes as President Joe Biden revealed Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had previously agreed to halt shelling briefly on Oct. 20 to allow for the release of two Americans, Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter, Natalie Raanan, 17.

The push for what U.S. officials call “humanitarian pauses” is one of several subjects Blinken will raise with 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 Gaza.

White House officials said the request for pauses was far different from an overall cease-fire, which the Biden administration believes would benefit Hamas by allowing it to recover from Israel’s intense bombardment.

But Biden is under increasing pressure to respond to what humanitarian groups have called an urgent crisis for civilians inside Gaza, where food, water, medicine and fuel are in short supply. A strike on a refugee camp in Gaza this week killed dozens of people even as Israeli officials said they killed a top Hamas leader.

At a fundraiser in Minneapolis on Wednesday evening, a protester confronted Biden and demanded that he call for a cease-fire. Biden responded: “I think we need a pause. A pause means give time to get the prisoners out.”

The president then revealed the previously agreed-upon pause for the two American hostages, using a common nickname to refer to Netanyahu.

“I’m the guy that convinced Bibi to call for a cease-fire to let the prisoners out,” Biden said. National security officials said later that despite the president’s use of the word “cease-fire,” he was talking about a brief pause in the Israeli bombardment, not a broader end to hostilities across Gaza.

Biden’s comments came a week after Blinken delivered a similar message at the U.N. Security Council.

“Israel must take all possible precautions to avoid harm to civilians,” the secretary of state said. “It means food, medicine and water and other assistance must flow into Gaza and to the areas people need them. It means civilians must be able to get out of harm’s way. It means humanitarian pauses must be considered for these purposes.”

The push by the United States for the pauses is unlikely to satisfy critics of Israel, some of whom are members of the president’s party. Several Democratic lawmakers in the House have introduced a resolution “calling for an immediate de-escalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”

But administration officials argue that more limited pauses could help to address the urgent humanitarian problems in Gaza while not preventing Israel from responding to the slaughter of more than 1,400 people in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.

“What we have said should be considered and explored are temporary localized humanitarian pauses to allow aid to get to specific populations and maybe even to help with the evacuation of people that want to get out, move more to the south” of Gaza, John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said Monday. “We do support that. We do not support a cease-fire at this time.”

White House officials said they were pushing for pauses that are limited by location and duration for two purposes: the possibility of future hostage releases and the urgent need to clear a path for the delivery and distribution of aid to Palestinians living in Gaza.

Officials have said negotiations are continuing for the release of additional hostages, with representatives of Qatar serving as mediators. If those negotiations succeed, officials said they would urge Israel to agree to stop its operations in the area where Hamas is set to release the hostages.

That is what happened on Oct. 20, officials said. Netanyahu agreed to ensure that there would be no shelling in the area where the Red Crescent picked up the two American women. That pause ended shortly after the women were released.

U.S. officials said they were also concerned about the delivery of humanitarian aid, which is beginning to trickle into Gaza on trucks that are entering through the Rafah gate at the border between Gaza and Egypt.

The concern, the officials said, is that the trucks need a way to safely get the aid to neighborhoods without risking being hit by an Israeli airstrike or caught in the middle of fighting on the ground. And the official said the aid does no good if residents of a neighborhood are too afraid to come out of their homes to get the food or water.

Blinken will urge Israel to consider brief pauses to allow the aid trucks safe passage.

White House officials said Netanyahu and other Israeli officials remained opposed to a broad cease-fire but appeared receptive to the idea of further pauses in the fighting for those purposes.

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