Biden to Netanyahu: ‘Occupying’ Gaza would be a ‘big mistake’

US president reiterates commitment to political solution as Israeli troops continue raid on Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital.

Joe Biden
President Biden holds a news conference about his meeting with Xi before the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Woodside, California, US, November 15, 2023 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

US President Joe Biden has said he had made it clear to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that occupying Gaza would be “a big mistake” and that the two-state solution was the only way to bring an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“I made it clear to the Israelis I think it’s a big mistake for them to think they’re going to occupy Gaza and maintain Gaza,” Biden told a news conference in San Francisco. “I don’t think that works.”

Netanyahu said earlier this month that after the war Gaza would have to be “demilitarised, deradicalised and rebuilt” and that Israel would need to find a “civilian government” to govern the enclave, which has been run by Hamas since 2006.

The Israeli leader said there was no plan to “occupy” Gaza although many consider it an occupied territory already because Israel has full control of its borders, airspace and territorial waters despite having formally withdrawn its forces and settlers in 2005.

Speaking as the Israeli military continued its raid on Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital, Biden said he had also discussed with Israeli leaders the need to “be incredibly careful” in its actions at the hospital, under which Israel says the Palestinian armed group Hamas had built its military headquarters.

Hospital officials and Hamas, which controls Gaza, deny the claim.

More than 11,300 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began bombarding the besieged enclave on October 7 after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 200 captive.

Biden, who was speaking to the media after a four-hour summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, insisted the only way to end the bloodshed was the “two-state solution”, with Israel and Palestinians living side by side.

While urging caution at al-Shifa, Biden repeated Israeli claims about the military headquarters and said Hamas was committing war crimes by housing such a facility beneath a hospital.

The raid on the hospital has drawn condemnation from the United Nations, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank and is a rival to Hamas.

Under international humanitarian law, hospitals can lose their protected status if used for military purposes. But civilians must also be given ample time to flee, and any attack must be proportional to the military objective — putting the burden on Israel to show the hospital was a big enough military target to justify the siege against it.

Biden said Israel had gone into al-Shifa, with a limited number of troops with guns, and that Israel had an obligation to use as much caution as possible in going after targets.

Israel has said it is not only looking for Hamas fighters but also the captives, including a three-year-old US citizen, who have been held in Gaza for more than a month.

Netanyahu, who has led Israel on and off for 16 years and is facing corruption charges, is under intense domestic pressure to account for political and security failings that may have led to the Hamas attack, the worst in the country’s history.

Protesters have taken to the streets demanding more be done to secure their release.

Biden said he was “mildly hopeful” there would be a deal to free them.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself here because I don’t know what’s happened in the last four hours, but we have gotten great cooperation from the Qataris,” he said when asked about progress.

Qatar, where Hamas operates a political office, has been leading mediation between the group and Israeli officials.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies