Despite U.S. pressure on Israel, casualty count in Gaza remains high

Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not mince words with Israeli officials. They were losing the moral high ground in their war with Hamas, he told them during a visit in late November. As they began to shift their scorched-earth offensive from northern Gaza to the southern part of the enclave, he said, it was imperative that civilian deaths go down and humanitarian aid sharply increase.

The Israelis listened, Blinken reported back to Washington. He and other senior officials visiting Tel Aviv at the time had pressed for a transition to a “low intensity” war by the end of December, replacing a hyperaggressive bombing and ground assault with strategic targeting of top Hamas officials.

The Israelis “told us they were going to take all of these new steps in the campaign in the south,” according to one of six senior administration officials who spoke about the ongoing, sensitive diplomacy on the condition of anonymity.

But six weeks later, whatever Israeli intentions were at the end of November, the intensity of their offensive has not significantly abated. Drops in civilian casualties and any expansion of humanitarian aid have been only marginal and sporadic.

Israel has made clear in recent discussions, administration officials said, that it will continue its high-intensity campaign throughout January.

The Biden administration, Israel’s closest ally and main arms provider, has appeared unable or unwilling to exert meaningful influence over how the Israeli military conducts the war. Although the United States has been at the forefront of efforts to get aid to Palestinians in Gaza and gain the release of hostages held there, its dual role as Israel’s leading defender against an increasingly hostile world has met with escalating international and domestic criticism and demands for an immediate cease-fire.

The still-high rate of civilian casualties has prompted calls from the left for the administration to place conditions on the billions of dollars of U.S. military assistance provided to Israel every year. “If the president is really frustrated, he has a lot of tools he can use,” said Matt Duss, executive vice president at the Center for International Policy and a former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “Promising unconditional support no matter what isn’t a good way to get someone to do something different.”

Even centrist Democrats have called for more U.S. pressure to aid civilians. Until there is a “cessation of hostilities,” Sens. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) said in a statement last week after a trip to the region, “it is imperative” that the United States demand that the Israelis lift impediments slowing delivery of “basic goods needed to sustain life in Gaza.”

Israel has said that Hamas interference and U.N. inefficiency are impeding humanitarian aid. Israeli officials have estimated that the military is killing one civilian for every Hamas “terrorist,” a ratio they insist is lower than counterterrorism campaigns other nations have conducted, and say it demonstrates their commitment to protecting innocent life. U.S. officials expressed strong doubts that the ratio reflects reality in Gaza.

Last week, in his most recent meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli war cabinet, Blinken said he would convey to President Biden their response to serious U.S. concerns.

Netanyahu, in a televised appearance Saturday marking 100 days since the war began, said it would continue “until total victory … returning all of our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will never again constitute a threat to Israel. … Nobody will stop us.”

When it comes to moderating how Israel conducts high-intensity operations, the Biden administration is increasingly convinced the Israelis are refusing to heed its advice. One senior U.S. official said it is pointless to urge them to change, and that Washington’s priority has now shifted to tolerating Israel’s high-intensity operation throughout January, while insisting instead that it downgrade the tempo in February.

Another senior U.S. official rejected that characterization, saying the administration was pressing for a lower tempo to begin as soon as possible.

Asked to respond to reports of high casualties and aid restrictions, an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the military campaign, said, “Israel is in the middle of a transition to a lower intensity phase in the war in Gaza, and contrary to the assertion in the article, civilian casualties in Gaza have decreased considerably. As for humanitarian aid, Israel is exerting significant efforts at ramping it up. … However, Hamas continuously seizes the content of the aid deliveries.”

In a news conference after leaving Tel Aviv last week, Blinken rebuffed suggestions that the main purpose of his trip — discussing with Arab partners and Israel plans for the reconstruction and governance of the enclave after the war ends — meant the administration had shifted away from trying to influence Israel’s conduct.

“In terms of civilian protections and casualties, no, we are intensely focused on that, just as we’re intensely focused on increasing humanitarian assistance,” Blinken said. “We’ve been very clear that it’s imperative that more be done, that Israel do more to protect civilians even as its working to ensure that October 7th doesn’t happen again,” he said, referring to the Hamas attack that killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel and took about 240 hostage, sparking the Gaza offensive.

Israel has “shown they can’t do high intensity anywhere without high civilian casualties,” a senior official said. “It’s not about getting to postwar planning. It’s about getting to a new tempo that will bring down casualties. We are in fact pushing for a scaled-back campaign that would last longer. But the idea is you could move to that and let civilians get back to some semblance of life.”

The 24 hours before Blinken arrived in Israel on Tuesday was one of the deadliest days in Gaza since the start of the conflict, leaving 250 dead. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 23,900 Gazans have been killed since the war began, the majority of them women and children.

The United Nations, which posts a daily update of conditions in the enclave, has reported no significant change in tactics since the main combat shift from the north to central and southern Gaza.

“The situation remains horrific as relentless Israeli military operations continue,” Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ chief humanitarian official, told the U.N. Security Council on Friday. “As ground operations move southwards, aerial bombardments have intensified in areas where civilians were told to relocate for their safety.” The risk of famine, Griffiths said, “is growing by the day,” and “dignified human life is a near impossibility.”

About 1.9 million Gazans, or 85 percent of the population, have been displaced from throughout Gaza, he said. Most have been “crammed into an ever-smaller sliver of land” in the south following Israeli evacuation orders, “only to find yet more violence and deprivation, inadequate shelter and a near absence of the most basic services.”

While Blinken described an upcoming U.N. “assessment” of northern Gaza to begin the process of enabling those who lived there to return home, “it is currently hard to imagine that people would or could move back northwards,” Griffiths said. Only five of 24 planned January deliveries of food, medicine water and other supplies have reached northern Gaza — where an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 civilians remain amid the rubble — the United Nations reported in its Friday update, citing Israeli military denials of passage “because the agreed routes were unpassable.”

There has been some incremental improvement in the south. Palestinian deaths, according to statistics from Gaza health officials, have averaged about 171 a day so far in January, down from 230 during the last week of December.

As of Friday, a daily average of 126 aid-laden trucks have entered Gaza in January through the only two available passages — the Rafah crossing from Egypt and Kerem Shalom from southern Israel — compared with an average of 108 over the last 10 days of December, according to U.N. figures. Before the war, about 500 delivery trucks entered Gaza daily.

But any significant increase is seen as unlikely under the current convoluted system all aid must go through before it reaches Gaza. Most arrives at the Arish seaport or airport in eastern Egypt. From there, it is loaded on trucks for an initial inspection by Egypt on its side of the Rafah crossing, then travels to further Israeli inspection at Nitzana in southern Israel before being reloaded and sent to Kerem Shalom or back to Rafah, only to be reloaded again inside Gaza onto smaller vehicles for distribution by the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations.

Late last year, a breakthrough came when trucks were allowed to enter Israel via the Allenby bridge from Jordan, where they were inspected, and permitted to drive through Israel directly to Kerem Shalom and into Gaza. But after one shipment, Israeli political considerations intervened and a new system was put in place. Goods must now be inspected and transferred at the bridge from Jordanian to Israeli trucks, and reloaded again in Egyptian trucks as they approach the enclave to avoid the appearance that Israel is providing direct assistance to Gaza.

Israeli officials have repeatedly charged that any lack of aid is due to Hamas looting inside Gaza, something that both the United Nations and the United States deny. Any looting that has taken place, a U.N. spokesman said in recent days, has been by “desperate” Gazan civilians who don’t know when or if the next delivery will come.

A senior U.S. official also sharply disputed Israel’s characterization, saying that “the Israeli government has not brought to the attention of the U.S. government … any specific evidence of Hamas theft or diversion of assistance provided via the U.N. and its agencies. Full stop.”

Israel and the United Nations have long had a testy relationship, and Israel has accused U.N. officials inside Gaza of being an arm of Hamas. U.S. officials, however, have repeatedly praised UNWRA, the U.N. relief agency there, for its efforts under difficult circumstances, including the deaths of more than 130 UNWRA staffers during the war and repeated Israeli bombing of what it says are clearly marked U.N. shelter facilities.

With outside journalists prohibited from entering Gaza, except in brief, Israeli military-escorted visits to the north, it is difficult to confirm many of the reports from inside the conflict.

The Israel Defense Forces on Friday offered an alternative view of Gazan reality, posting a video titled “Humanitarian Aid, Urban Warfare and Everything in Between: A 7-Minute Summary of the War Against Hamas” on its website and social media. Apparently intended for foreign consumption, it is narrated in English.

Israel recognized from the beginning of the conflict that a fight against Hamas militants deeply embedded in civilian areas “could result in massive damage to infrastructure and a catastrophic loss of civilian lives,” the voice-over says, and “the IDF decided on two essential humanitarian steps that were needed to be taken.”

Rather than U.N.-described forced relocations ordered by Israel with leaflet drops and text messages most Gazans can’t access amid ongoing blackouts, the video shows Palestinians riding in private cars and trucks, some smiling as they headed south to avoid the attacks on Hamas fighters. Instead of the destruction of whole neighbors, hospitals and schools recounted by the United Nations and others, it says the IDF uses intelligence reconnaissance and “cellular location tracking” to build “a real-time picture of the remaining population density” to plan “upcoming maneuvers,” thus saving “countless lives.”

This was “just the first step in the IDF humanitarian efforts in order to provide the now relocated population with water, food, medical aid and shelter,” it says. Working with U.S., U.N. and Egyptian representatives, the video reports, Israel helped create “a large-scale humanitarian aid operation focused on maximizing the amount of aid transportation into Gaza.”

“These joint actions,” it says, “enabled a 1,000 percent surge in the daily aid volume.” The video offers no basis for comparison, although it was only after the first two weeks of the war, and a direct intervention by Biden, that Israel lifted a complete wartime embargo on all food, water, fuel and medical deliveries into Gaza.

The U.N. says only 15 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are partially functioning, remaining facilities and physicians are overwhelmed, and only “26 percent of the requested medical supplies needs have been met.” At the same time, “repeated denials of fuel delivery to water and sanitation facilities have deprived people of access to clean water.” The combination of “water trucking, water from the functional desalination plant and the restoration of one of the three main water supply lines on 30 December has yielded only seven percent of water production in Gaza, compared with the pre-October 2023 supply.”

The World Food Program estimates that 93 percent of the population in Gaza is facing crisis levels of hunger.

In contrast, the IDF video says that “the amount of food transferred feeds over half a million people daily. … To support Gaza’s water needs, trucks enter daily carrying fresh water as well as fuel supplies to keep the water distillation facilities running.” Israel, it says, facilitates “extensive medical aid” and “the movement of international medical teams in and out of Gaza.”

Israel, it concludes, “is fully committed to facilitating and supporting all humanitarian efforts by the international community while working to free the Israeli hostages and dismantle Hamas, and with it, bring hope for a better future for the people of the Middle East.”

Hudson reported from Tel Aviv.

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