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Biden Administration to Press Israel for ‘Pauses’ in War With Hamas

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will urge the Israeli government to agree to a series of brief cessations of military operations in Gaza to allow for hostages to be released safely and for humanitarian aid to be distributed, White House officials said on Thursday.

The message comes as President Biden revealed on Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had previously agreed to halt shelling briefly on Oct. 20 to allow for the release of two Americans, Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter, Natalie Raanan, 17.

The push for what American officials call “humanitarian pauses” is one of several subjects Mr. Blinken will raise with Mr. Netanyahu and other officials when he arrives in Israel on Friday for another round of diplomacy amid fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas, the group that controls Gaza.

Speaking to reporters before boarding a plane on his way to the Middle East, Mr. Blinken said part of his mission would be to help ensure that civilians in Gaza were protected as Israel wages its war.

“We’ve seen in recent days Palestinian civilians continuing to bear the brunt of this, this action,” the secretary of state said. “And it’s important that the United States is committed to making sure everything possible is done to protect civilians.”

At the White House, Mr. Biden said some of the American dual citizens who had been trying to leave Gaza since the war began were able to cross into Egypt.

“Good news: We got out today 74 American folks, dual citizens,” he said.

White House officials said the request for pauses was far different from an overall cease-fire, which the Biden administration believes would benefit Hamas by allowing it to recover from Israel’s intense bombardment.

But Mr. Biden is under increasing pressure to respond as people in Gaza struggle to find food, water, medicine and fuel. A strike on a refugee camp in Gaza this week killed dozens of people even as Israeli officials said they killed a top Hamas leader.

At a fund-raiser in Minneapolis on Wednesday evening, a protester confronted Mr. Biden and demanded that he call for a cease-fire. “I think we need a pause,” Mr. Biden responded, adding, “A pause means give time to get the prisoners out.”

The president then revealed the previously agreed-upon pause for the two American hostages, using a common nickname to refer to Mr. Netanyahu.

“I’m the guy that convinced Bibi to call for that cease-fire to let the prisoners out,” Mr. Biden said. National security officials said later that despite the president’s use of the word “cease-fire,” he was talking about a brief pause in the Israeli bombardment, not a broader end to hostilities.

Mr. Biden’s comments came a week after Mr. Blinken delivered a similar message at the United Nations Security Council.

“Israel must take all possible precautions to avoid harm to civilians,” the secretary of state said. “It means food, medicine and water and other assistance must flow into Gaza and to the areas people need them. It means civilians must be able to get out of harm’s way. It means humanitarian pauses must be considered for these purposes.”

That message echoes what some of the humanitarian aid groups have been saying in the last several days. The latest statement by the International Rescue Committee called for such pauses as a way of helping to ensure that aid workers were kept safe as they tried to help get supplies into Gaza.

“It would allow for delivery of humanitarian supplies, and allow staff to assess needs and deliver aid,” the group said. “It could also allow for the evacuation of the sick and wounded who cannot be cared for inside Gaza, and allow for negotiations for release of hostages.”

The push by the United States for the pauses is unlikely to satisfy critics of Israel, some of whom are members of the president’s party. Several Democratic lawmakers in the House have introduced a resolution “calling for an immediate de-escalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”

Catherine Russell, the executive director of UNICEF, on Thursday demanded a humanitarian cease-fire that would protect civilians in Gaza, especially children.

“Four hundred children are reportedly killed and injured in Gaza every day, so any step to stop the violence, even temporarily, is positive,” she said. “But it is not enough.”

But administration officials argue that more limited pauses could help to address the humanitarian problems in Gaza while not preventing Israel from responding to the slaughter of more than 1,400 people in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.

“What we have said should be considered and explored are temporary localized humanitarian pauses to allow aid to get to specific populations and maybe even to help with the evacuation of people that want to get out, move more to the south” of Gaza, John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Monday. “We do support that. We do not support a cease-fire at this time.”

White House officials said they were pushing for pauses limited by location and duration for two purposes: the possibility of future hostage releases and the urgent need to clear a path for the delivery and distribution of aid to Palestinians living in Gaza.

Officials have said negotiations are continuing for the release of additional hostages, with representatives of Qatar serving as mediators. If those negotiations succeed, officials said they would urge Israel to agree to stop its operations in the area where Hamas is set to release the hostages.

That is what happened on Oct. 20, officials said. Mr. Netanyahu agreed to ensure that there would be no shelling in the area where the Red Crescent picked up the two American women. That pause ended shortly after the women were released.

U.S. officials said they were also concerned about the delivery of humanitarian aid, which is beginning to trickle into Gaza on trucks that are entering through the Rafah gate at the border between Gaza and Egypt.

The concern, the officials said, is that the trucks need a way to safely get the aid to neighborhoods without risking being hit by an Israeli airstrike or caught in the middle of fighting on the ground. And the official said the aid does no good if residents of a neighborhood are too afraid to come out of their homes to get the food or water.

Mr. Blinken will urge Israel to consider brief pauses to allow the aid trucks safe passage.

White House officials said Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials remained opposed to a broad cease-fire but appeared receptive to the idea of further pauses in the fighting for those purposes.

Ron Dermer, a top adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, told reporters this week that Israel had twice briefly ceased operating in some areas in Gaza to facilitate the evacuation of the hostages released by Hamas. But that was a “temporary cessation of operations in order to actually get your hostages physically to safety,” he said, not a compromise on Israel’s goal of dismantling Hamas.

“If there’s going to be a proposal that would free our hostages, we will obviously do whatever we can to ensure that they can get safely to wherever they need to get,” Mr. Dermer said.

On Thursday, Mr. Kirby said the United States would continue to work with Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli government in the days ahead.

“We were able to work with him to help get Americans out before,” Mr. Kirby said. “So we’re certainly hoping that that kind of cooperation will continue. But each instance of it, each effort to get a pause is going to be unique in its own way. And it’s going to require negotiation and diplomacy.”

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