Biden says Israel’s military conduct in Gaza has been ‘over the top’

In World

President Biden on Thursday said Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has been “over the top” in his sharpest rebuke yet and said he hoped the current negotiations over a release of hostages in exchange for a long-term pause could lay the groundwork to change the course of the war.

The “conduct of the response in Gaza Strip has been over the top,” Biden said. “I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire. I’ve been working tirelessly on this deal … because I think if we can get the delay, the initial delay — I think we would be able to extend that so that we could increase the prospect that this fighting in Gaza changes.”

Biden, who has been resistant to speak in detail about the suffering in Gaza, also spoke in the most visceral terms yet about the desperation in the enclave.

“I’ve been pushing really hard to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza. A lot of innocent people are starving. A lot of innocent people are in trouble and they’re dying and it’s got to stop,” Biden said.

The comments mark a stunning turnaround for Biden, who has an emotional attachment to Israel and has largely refused to criticize the country even as anger grows among left-leaning parts of the Democratic base over the war in Gaza and its enormous civilian toll. Israeli airstrikes and raids over the past four months have killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and created a humanitarian catastrophe in the densely populated enclave of more than 2 million people.

Israel’s military campaign came in response to an attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas militants, in which they rampaged through Israel’s border fence with Gaza and murdered 1,200 Israelis, many of them civilians, and took about 250 others hostage. Biden has twice circumvented Congress to send hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons to Israel, a move that has angered some Senate Democrats.

The president has resisted pressure to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, which polls show a majority of Democratic voters support. But his unwavering support of Israel has cost him politically as young voters, people of color and Arab American and Muslim Americans have strongly disapproved of his handling of the war. Still, Congress is debating a foreign aid bill that includes $14 billion of aid for Israel, which passed a key threshold in the Senate on Thursday.

Earlier on Thursday, a group of senior policy advisers traveled to Michigan, which has a large Arab American and Muslim population, to meet with members of the community and elected officials to try to shore up support. The state is critical to Biden’s path to a second term but the president faces serious problems there, particularly as many Arab American and Muslim voters mobilize to ensure members of their community do not support Biden in November.

Biden and his aides have grown exasperated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly ignored U.S. calls to limit civilian casualties, wind down military operations in Gaza and allow more aid into the enclave, where hundreds of thousands of residents are at risk of famine and disease.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has publicly humiliated Biden despite hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons transfers and unwavering support, even as global condemnation mounts. Netanyahu has become increasingly defiant about the prospect of a two-state solution — which Biden has said must follow the end of the war — and this week rejected a deal that would see the release of some Israeli hostages in exchange for a long-term pause in fighting while Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the region.

Netanyahu also angered U.S. officials when he vowed the Israeli military campaign would continue into Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, where more than 1 million Palestinians have fled for safety under Israeli orders. On Thursday, White House spokesman John Kirby said any Israeli operation in Rafah under the current circumstances “would be a disaster for those people and we would not support it.”

Biden on Thursday also issued a national security memorandum that calls for the State Department to receive written assurances from countries receiving U.S. weapons that they will abide by existing U.S. standards. Those include abiding by international law and that recipients will facilitate — and will not “arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede” — transport of U.S. humanitarian assistance.

That memorandum came in response to mounting criticism from prominent Democrats over Israel’s military campaign and whether it was adhering to international law despite receiving U.S. weapons and billions of dollars in aid.

In talking about his efforts to get aid into Gaza, Biden detailed how he pressed Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi to open up the country’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which Sisi initially refused to do out of fear that Israel would forcibly displace Palestinians into his country. But Biden mistakenly referred to Sisi as “the president of Mexico.”

Biden’s remarks came at the end of a hastily arranged media conference in which the president addressed the findings of a special counsel report released Thursday into his handling of classified documents. The report exonerated him of any criminal wrongdoing but also included language from special counsel Robert K. Hur questioning his memory and mental agility.

Read More: Biden says Israel’s military conduct in Gaza has been ‘over the top’

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