As Israel prepares Gaza invasion that could kill thousands, U.S. resists publicly calling for restraint

As Israel presses ahead with what it promises will be a “crushing” assault on the Gaza Strip, the Biden administration has carefully avoided making public calls for restraint or a halt to hostilities.

Horrified by the brutal, deadly offensive that Hamas militants launched Saturday against Israelis, President Biden has been forceful and unrelenting in condemning the Gaza-based group and in supporting Israel, acknowledging the traumatized nation’s outrage and desire for revenge.

In most of the long string of clashes between Israel and Palestinian or other Arab groups over recent decades, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the U.S. has urged de-escalation and a return to calm.

But as Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians in Gaza City to evacuate their homes and seek safety in southern Gaza ahead of the anticipated Israeli land incursion, U.S. officials cited the importance of international law but did not cast doubt on Israel’s plans. Some human rights organizations say the forced evacuation of noncombatants under siege could constitute a war crime.

“No country can tolerate having a terrorist group come in, slaughter its people in the most unconscionable ways and live like that,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Friday at a news conference in the Qatari capital of Doha. “What Israel is doing is not retaliation, it is defending the lives of its people.”

Blinken is holding urgent meetings with officials in several Arab states after traveling to Tel Aviv on Wednesday to emphasize U.S. support for Israel. His main goal is to prevent the war from expanding beyond Israel and Gaza and deter other enemies of Israel from getting involved.

Blinken said he and other U.S. officials stressed to Israeli leaders the importance of “taking every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians” but added that any country “faced with what Israel has suffered would likely do the same.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was in Tel Aviv on Friday, to show solidarity with the Israeli armed forces. Asked about the possibility of massive civilian deaths in Gaza, Austin said the Israeli armed forces “are professional, they are disciplined, and they are focused on the right things.” At the same time, Austin said of the Hamas attacks, there “is no excuse for the inexcusable.”

Blinken and Austin’s trips and comments were aimed at publicly reenforcing Biden’s message of lock-step support for Israel. But if death and destruction in Gaza spike in the days and weeks ahead, the U.S.risks being blamed for failing to prevent the worst.

“To the extent the administration can keep its concerns private, it will, partly to reassure the Israelis,” Jon Alterman, Middle East Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Friday in a teleconference. “But the downside of that …is a sense the U.S. is doing nothing and sitting on its hands while the rest of the world is seeking to pressure Israel, and why is the U.S. not joining?”

Analysts and former diplomats said the private messaging is likely to be more nuanced than the public chorus, which gives administration officials cover to raise more troublesome issues.

Blinken and others are likely telling the Israelis privately they should take care not to let the coming offensive against Gaza squander that support and sympathy Israel now has, said Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt.

“My guess is they’re telling the Israelis: ‘You don’t want the narrative to shift. We know you want to decapitate Hamas, but don’t go overboard where you become the problem,’” Kurtzer said.

The U.S. should also remind Israel, at it receives even more weaponry from American arsenals, that the U.S. does not want to be dragged into any other conflicts and that the Jewish settlers in the West Bank should be reined in because they also could further destabilize the area, Kurtzer added.

Ambassador Eric Edelman, a former State Department and White House official who served as then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s principal deputy assistant for national security affairs, said Israelis are grateful for the outpouring of international support they’ve received but understand there’s a “short half life” once they begin military operations and the civilian collateral damage in Gaza takes its toll.

“I think they want to do the maximum amount of damage they can to Hamas — its physical infrastructure, killing its leaders and taking out as many of the front-line fighters as they can before the international pressure on them becomes so great that they have to stop,” Edelman said.

Publicly criticizing Israel at the outset could also impede the Biden administration’s private efforts, according to Edelman, who said the U.S. has long preferred using diplomatic back channels to de-escalate conflicts in the Middle East, pointing to a similar conflict between Israel and Hamas in the 2008-09 Gaza War and subsequent fighting in 2012 and 2014.

Biden took a similar tack during a flare-up between Israel in Hamas in May 2021, when the president avoided publicly commenting on Israeli military strikes, despite facing increased pressure from the Democratic party’s progressive wing to call for an end to the military campaign. The president instead focused on behind-the-scenes diplomacy to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring the 11-day conflict to an end.

“I think public backing now does bank some leverage for the administration later, if it feels it needs to pressure Israel to stop,” Edelman said.

John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, was pressed Friday on how the administration can be confident Israel will respect international rules of war and the Geneva Convention when already at least half of some 1,400 people killed in Israeli airstrikes are women and children.

Israel earlier this week cut off food, fuel and electricity to the besieged Gaza enclave, which the United Nations says is a potential war crime.

“We don’t want to see any more innocent life, lost or suffered as a result of the conflict,” Kirby said. “We routinely and will continue to talk to our Israeli counterparts about issues regarding the law of armed conflict and respect for innocent human life. That’s a conversation we have had and continue to have with them.”