President Joe Biden has voiced support for a humanitarian “pause” to Israel’s war in Gaza as the United States presses to evacuate all Americans trapped in the besieged Palestinian enclave.
“I think we need a pause,” Biden said during a campaign speech on Wednesday, after being interrupted by a protester who urged for an immediate ceasefire.
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When asked what a pause meant, Biden said it was “time to get the prisoners out” – a reference to the captives held by Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, the White House later clarified.
The US president’s remarks marked a shift in the position of the White House, which has previously said it would not dictate how Israel conducts its military operations.
“We’re not drawing red lines for Israel,” White House spokesperson John Kirby said last week. “We’re going to continue to support them.”
On Friday, the US was one of only 14 countries in the United Nations to vote “no” to a resolution in the General Assembly calling for a “ceasefire”.
The US is by far Israel’s strongest ally, sending it billions of dollars in aid annually. To support Israel’s ongoing military offensive, Biden has asked Congress to approve a $14.3bn military aid package to the country.
The US president has faced growing pressure from rights activists, fellow world leaders, and even progressive members of his own Democratic Party to rein in Israel from its relentless attacks on Gaza, which have killed at least 8,800 people, including 3,500 children.
He is facing particularly intense backlash from Arab Americans, an important constituency in the Democratic Party, for his staunch backing of Israel in the war.
Biden’s support from Arab Americans has plummeted to 17 percent, according to a survey from the Arab American Institute (AAI) think tank.
“This is incredibly complicated for the Israelis,” Biden added during his speech. “It’s incredibly complicated for the Muslim world as well … I supported a two-state solution, I have from the very beginning.”
US citizens leaving Gaza
Biden’s latest push for a “pause” to the fighting comes as the US administration progresses in securing the safe exit of its citizens trapped in Gaza and begins speaking about the future of a post-war Gaza.
On Wednesday, American citizens were among hundreds of foreigners to begin leaving the besieged territory via Egypt’s Rafah border crossing, part of an Egypt-mediated deal to allow safe passage for the wounded and foreign nationals.
White House spokesperson Kirby said on Wednesday he was hopeful the US would get all Americans out of Gaza in the next few days.
About 400 US citizens in Gaza have told the State Department they want to leave the territory and, with family members, US officials say they are trying to help about 1,000 people get out.
Biden’s shift in rhetoric also comes amid a flurry of US diplomatic moves in the region, including the confirmation of a new ambassador to Israel and an upcoming trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Jordan and Israel.
Kirby said Biden’s newly confirmed ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, would soon take up his post.
He would be tasked with “supporting US efforts to create the conditions for a humanitarian pause to address the worsening humanitarian conditions facing Palestinian civilians”.
Lew, in a Senate confirmation hearing, said “Israel’s struggle for security” was his principal concern and he would “ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself”.
Sending my congratulations to Jack Lew on his confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to Israel. I look forward to working closely with Ambassador-designate Lew at this critical time in Israel’s history and the Israel-U.S. relationship. pic.twitter.com/HTMN7zCimR
— Ambassador Michael Herzog (@AmbHerzog) October 31, 2023
Blinken will be travelling to Jordan and Israel on Friday with an agenda to boost humanitarian aid delivery and reduce casualties.
“[Blinken] will reiterate US support for Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international humanitarian law, and discuss the need to take all precautions to minimise civilian casualties, as well as our work to deliver humanitarian assistance,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.