U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Feb. 8, 2024. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Calling Israel’s response in Gaza ‘over the top,’ Biden conditions defense aid on allowing humanitarian assistance

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Calling Israel’s response in Gaza ‘over the top,’ Biden conditions defense aid on allowing humanitarian assistance

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Feb. 8, 2024. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden is conditioning U.S. defense assistance on not impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid, a key point of tension between the U.S. and Israeli governments during the Gaza war.

The policy announcement, made Thursday night, followed a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Israel that has put a deepening divide between Washington and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on display.

A White House national security memorandum cuts to the core of one major element of that divide, over the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians devastated by four months of the Israel-Hamas war.

It requires that all countries receiving arms from the United States to commit in writing that, in a war arena where the U.S. weapons are in use, “the recipient country will facilitate and not arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance and United States Government-supported international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance.”

In a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency conveyed after publication of this article, a senior administration official  said the memorandum reiterates existing policy. “We are spelling out publicly the existing standards set by international law, including the law of armed conflict,” the official said. “We’re not issuing this because we think any country or countries are violating these standards.”

What is new, the official said,  is a “a new annual [compliance] report to Congress that members have requested in the interest of transparency.”

The memorandum does not mention Israel but does reference “allies and partners” as its target. In a press conference Thursday evening, Biden made clear his frustration with the slowness of the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, which world health officials say a famine is impending because of the war.

“I’ve talked to Bibi to open the gate on Israeli side,” he said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname. “I’ve been pushing really hard, really hard to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza. There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, but innocent people or in trouble and dying. And it’s got to stop.”

Biden also reiterated his concern about Israel’s response in Gaza. “I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top,” he said, using an idiom that he also applied this week to Hamas’ counterproposal in hostage talks.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen praised Biden for the defense aid memorandum, calling it a “BFD,” a euphemism Biden is famous for using. A Maryland Democrat, Van Hollen is leading an effort by a number of Democrats in Congress to write such conditionality into law.

“This is huge,” Van Hollen said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It’s the first time EVER that these types of transparency and accountability mechanisms will be enforced on US security assistance.”

Van Hollen named Netanyahu as a target of the memorandum. “As we’ve seen, despite repeated pleas from the Biden Administration, actions from the Netanyahu government are still causing extremely high civilian casualties and preventing over 2 million innocent Palestinians in Gaza from getting enough desperately needed humanitarian aid,” he said.

The memorandum explicitly exempts air defense systems, which have been critical to Israel in defending against rocket attacks. It requires that the secretaries of defense and state report on compliance to Congress within 90 says.

Biden’s comments came during a press conference called after a special counsel cleared him of wrongdoing for retaining classified information after finishing his term as vice president in 2017 but raised questions about his memory.

Biden, who is 81, rejected claims of incompetence and said he was distracted during his interview with the special counsel because it took place open Oct. 8 and Oct. 9.

“I went forward with a five-hour, in-person interview over two days on October — the eighth and ninth of last year — even though Israel had just been attacked by Hamas on the seventh and I was very occupied,” he said.

Biden has backed Israel since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists raided the country and murdered about 1,200 people, abducted more than 250 and brutalized thousands more. But he and his aides have grown increasingly vocal about what they say is Israel slow-walking the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Speaking during an Israel visit after what reportedly was a contentious meeting with Netanyahu, who faces pressure from his political allies to continue the war, Blinken said Israel must recognize the humanity of Palestinians.

“Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on Oct. 7,” he said. “The hostages have been dehumanized every day since.  But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others.  The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of Oct. 7, and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families. ”

Blinken’s remarks come as Israeli protesters in recent days, including some families of the hostages and veterans of the war, have blocked the entry of assistance into Gaza, prompting an outcry from human rights groups.

More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched counterstrikes on Oct. 8, including thousands of children. Israel says over 10,000 are combatants. Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced.

Netanyahu has stridently defended Israel’s conduct in Gaza. Biden has to a degree as well, joining Israel last month in saying charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice were meritless.

But the Biden administration has sharpened its criticism of some aspects of Israel’s conduct. Last week, Biden sanctioned four Jewish settlers it accused of extremism, a signal that it believes Israel is not doing enough to counter increasing anti-Palestinian violence in the West Bank.

The memorandum also requires that countries receiving defense assistance commit in writing that they “will use any such defense articles in accordance with international humanitarian law.”

He was asked about the pace of negotiations to arrive at a temporary ceasefire to bring about the release of more than 130 hostages Israel is still holding. Biden appeared to be aiming for a longer breaking in fighting than Netanyahu has forecast for an exchange of hostages with Palestinian prisoners, and appeared to inch closer to demands from some in his party for a ceasefire.

“If we can get the delay, that initial delay I think that we will be able to extend that, so that we can increase the prospect that the fighting in Gaza changes,” he said.

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