By Humeyra Pamuk, Jonathan Saul and Maggie Fick
WASHINGTON/LONDON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Facing a soaring death toll from Israel’s renewed offensive in southern Gaza, the Biden administration is trying to pressure its ally to minimize civilian deaths while stopping well short of the kind of measures that might force it to listen, such as threatening to restrict military aid.
Top U.S. officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have urged Israel publicly to conduct a more surgical offensive in the south to avoid the heavy civilian casualties inflicted by its attacks in the north.
About 900 people in Gaza were killed in Israeli airstrikes between Friday when a truce ended and Monday, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, about the same number killed in strikes in Gaza over the four days following the Hamas cross-border raid on Israel on Oct. 7, though fewer than the 1,199 who died in the four days following the start of Israel’s ground offensive on northern Gaza Oct 28.
Washington is for now ruling out withholding delivery of weapons or harshly criticizing Israel as a means of changing its tactics because the U.S. believes the existing strategy of privately negotiating is effective, according to two U.S. officials.
“We think what we’re doing is moving them” a senior U.S. official said, citing how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shifted from refusing to allow aid into Gaza to allowing nearly 200 trucks of assistance a day, saying those improvements were the result of intense diplomacy, not threats.
The U.S. official spoke after three days of resumed aerial bombardments of southern Gaza left residents pulling the bodies of children and adults from the rubble.
But the U.S. official said reducing military support to Israel would carry major risks.
“You start lessening aid to Israel, you start encouraging other parties to come into the conflict, you weaken the deterrence effect and you encourage Israel’s other enemies,” the official said.
The United States has called its support unwavering. The Israeli government appears unmoved by international demands to change its strategy.
“I must admit I sense that the prime minister feels zero pressure, and that we will do whatever it takes to achieve our military goals,” Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser Ophir Falk told Reuters last week when asked about the international pressure on Israel.
SIGNIFICANT U.S. LEVERAGE
The United States gives Israel $3.8 billion in military aid annually, ranging from fighter jets to powerful bombs that could destroy Hamas tunnels, and the Biden administration has asked Congress to approve an additional $14 billion.
Such support gives Washington “significant leverage” over how the war against Hamas is conducted, said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at The Project on Middle East Democracy.
“Withholding certain types of equipment or delaying refilling stockpiles of various arms would force the Israeli government to adjust strategies and tactics because they would not be guaranteed to have more in the pipeline,” said Binder. “To date, the administration has demonstrated an unwillingness to use that leverage.”
Weighing on Biden is the 2024 presidential election, even as senior aides have stepped up calls for Israeli restraint. Any attempt to cut aid could hurt the Democratic president with pro-Israel independent voters as he seeks re-election.
Biden also faces pressure from a faction of progressive Democrats who want the U.S. to set conditions on military aid to its closest Middle East ally, and for the president to support calls for an immediate ceasefire.
A senior Israeli security source said that so far there has been no change in U.S. support for Israel. “At the moment there is an understanding and there is continued coordination,” said the source. “If the U.S. shifts course, Israel will have to speed up its operations and wrap things up quickly.”
Fighting between Israel and Hamas resumed on Friday after a seven-day pause to exchange hostages and prisoners and deliver humanitarian aid. Israel is retaliating for an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants that it says killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages.
Gaza’s health ministry, whose data the U.N. has deemed broadly reliable, said on Monday that at least 15,899 Palestinians, 70% of them women or people under 18 whom it defines as children, have been killed in Israeli bombardments over eight weeks of warfare.
SEEING ‘EYE TO EYE’ WITH ISRAEL
The Israeli military’s offensive in northern Gaza began with intense aerial bombardment, then a large-scale ground incursion that ultimately saw Israeli forces surround and enter Gaza City, the largest settlement in the enclave.
Israeli officials say they are conducting operations in the south differently, allowing more time for non-combatants in combat areas to evacuate, but can’t promise to eliminate civilian casualties.
“We are going to continue with our campaign to destroy Hamas, a campaign that the United States sees eye to eye with us about,” Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said on Tuesday. He repeated Israeli accusations that Hamas uses woman and children as human shields.
On Friday, Israel’s military began posting grid-based maps online ordering Palestinians to leave parts of southern Gaza, directing them towards the Mediterranean coast and Rafah, near the Egyptian border. Some residents said the so-called “safe areas” where they told to go also came under fire that caused casualties.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Monday that Washington expects the Israelis to follow through on not attacking those areas.
A second U.S. official said the fact that Israel was being more deliberate in saying what areas civilians should avoid was a sign U.S. pressure was working. The official said the U.S. wants Israel to be more precise with its strikes in southern Gaza, but it was too early to tell whether Israel had taken this advice on board.
Residents and journalists on the ground said intense Israeli airstrikes hit southern Gaza on Monday, killing and wounding dozens of Palestinians.
“All indications and reports suggest that the same pattern – of dropping heavy duty bombs and using artillery in densely populated areas – is continuing” since Israel’s offensive resumed, said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International said it had found that U.S.-made munitions had killed 43 civilians in two Israeli air strikes in Gaza.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Jonathan Saul and Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Jerusalem and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Don Durfee and Daniel Wallis)