Nov 29, 2023 - World

Scoop: Biden warned Bibi Israel can't operate in southern Gaza the way it did in north

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18. Photo: Handout/GPO/Anadolu via Getty Images

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18. Photo: Handout/GPO/Anadolu via Getty Images

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday that he is concerned about a possible Israeli military operation in southern Gaza after the current pause in fighting ends, two U.S. officials told Axios.

Driving the news: The Biden administration is extremely worried that an Israeli operation in the southern Gaza Strip — where 2 million Palestinians are concentrated — would lead to significantly more civilian casualties and deepen the humanitarian crisis in the enclave, the officials said.

  • At least 14,800 Palestinians, including 6,000 children, have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza.

Behind the scenes: The U.S. officials said Biden's phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday was focused specifically on his concerns about an Israeli operation in the southern Gaza Strip.

  • Biden told Netanyahu that the way Israel operated in northern Gaza, which included a wide assault and three armored and infantry divisions, can't be repeated in the southern part of the enclave because of the millions of Palestinians who are there now, the U.S. officials said.

Netanyahu told Biden an operation in the south is necessary to achieve Israel's goal of destroying Hamas and the Israeli public won't accept stopping the military operation now, two U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • Biden said on the call that he wants the U.S. and Israel to conduct more discussions about the Israeli military's operational plans for southern Gaza ahead of any such operation. One of the U.S. officials said Netanyahu agreed.
  • U.S. and Israeli officials said two similar conversations took place in recent days between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant.

Between the lines: Early in the war, Israel ordered more than 1 million Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza and move to the south before its ground invasion began.

  • It has also prevented Palestinians from returning to the north during the humanitarian pause in fighting.

What they're saying: The White House and Israeli Prime Minister's Office declined to comment about the details of Sunday's phone call between Biden and Netanyahu.

  • White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing on Tuesday that the Biden administration "does not support southern operations unless or until the Israelis can show that they have accounted for all the internally displaced people of Gaza."
  • Kirby added that Israel must ensure that its plan for operations in the southern Gaza Strip "properly accounts for the extra innocent life that is now in south Gaza."

State of play: Negotiations are currently underway on a possible second extension of the pause in fighting in Gaza. The pause, which was first extended on Monday, is set to end overnight Wednesday.

  • Even if the humanitarian ceasefire is extended, however, Israeli officials say the pause in fighting will likely only last for a few more days.
  • Netanyahu, Gallant and Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Gen. Herzi Halevi have said publicly that military plans for an operation in southern Gaza have already been approved and that the fighting will resume with full force once the pause ends.

Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed with Gallant the importance of Israel conducting operations in accordance with the law of armed conflict.

  • "We certainly do not want to see innocent civilians being harmed or impacted to a greater extent than they have been already," he said.

What to watch: A U.S. official said Secretary of State Tony Blinken is expected to focus on the Biden administration's concerns when he meets with Netanyahu and members of the Israeli war cabinet in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

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