US pressure forces Israel to make first concession in six months of Gaza war

Netanyahu is keeping a low profile as the White House demands ‘concrete, verifiable and sustainable’ changes to prevent a repeat of the attack on World Central Kitchen, in which seven aid workers were killed

Primer ministro Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Abir Sultan (AP)

Israel officially fell silent after the call between Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, in which the U.S. president warned the Israeli prime minister that U.S. support for the war in Gaza depended on whether he took immediate steps to protect civilians and guarantee humanitarian aid. It was an unusual step: Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving prime minister — tends to boast about his relations with foreign leaders. Indeed, his 2019 election campaign used a poster of Netanyahu shaking hands with former U.S. president Donald Trump, along with the message: “Netanyahu, in a different league.” But just hours after his call with Biden, the Israeli prime minister had bowed to pressure — the same pressure that he promised to resist in a speech to the Israeli Parliament.

On Friday, the Netanyahu government announced that it will open the Erez border crossing with northern Gaza and that the Israeli port of Ashdod will once again receive humanitarian aid. It was his first major concession to the White House since the start of the war in Gaza, which will mark its six-month anniversary on Sunday, ending a week in which Netanyahu has tried to keep a low profile. Biden welcomed the news, but the White House said it will be watching closely to see whether Israel keep its word, takes real steps to protect civilian lives and reaches a ceasefire agreement in the negotiations taking place in Egypt.

In addition to the aid announcement, Israel announced on Friday the results of an internal investigation into the Israeli army strike which killed seven aid workers from the NGO World Central Kitchen (WCK, founded by the America-Spanish chef José Andrés) in Gaza. Israel’s chief military spokesman, Daniel Hagari, said: “It’s a serious event that we’re responsible for, and it shouldn’t have happened.”

In a statement, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) described the strike as a “grave mistake” and said that two military officers had been dismissed for their actions, such as assuming an armed man was in one of the cars they had seen before in another vehicle and mistakenly identifying a person guarding a warehouse as a Hamas terrorist. The investigation did not clarify how the troops failed to recognize that the three bombed vehicles belonged to the NGO, given the cars had the WCK logo and the organization had notified the IDF of their movements. Nor is there any explanation as to why the army continued to strike the vehicles when it could be seen that the survivors who were trying to save their lives by moving from one car to another were not armed. WCK has called for an independent investigation.

Washington welcomed Israel’s aid announcement, but maintained a cautious tone. “I asked [the Israelis] to do what they’re doing,” Biden told reporters at the White House before traveling to Baltimore to visit the bridge that collapsed last week.

“We have seen some welcome announcements from the Israelis,” John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters on a briefing call, adding that Washington was willing to collaborate to accelerate the distribution of humanitarian aid. “These were just announcements. We’ve got to see results. We’ve got to see sustainable deliverables here over time. It’s not enough just to announce it, but they have moved on some of the very specific requests that the president made,” he added.

Kirby also welcomed the findings into the strike on World Central Kitchen, but said that the United States would carefully examine the conclusions to decide its next steps. He said that Washington has no plans to open it own investigation.

“What really matters here, for us, is two things: one, that something like this does not happen again and, two, that there are concrete, verifiable, achievable and, again, sustainable changes to their processes in the way they conduct these kinds of missions so that the safety of civilians on the ground and humanitarian aid workers is top of mind,” Kirby said.

The senior official added that the United States was still pushing Israel to reach an immediate ceasefire for the exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, as took place in the beginning of November.

“It’s very important that Israel is taking full responsibility for this incident,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday from Belgium. “It’s also important that it appears to be taking steps to hold those responsible accountable.” According to Blinken, Netanyahu told Biden that “Israel would be making further changes to its procedures” to make sure aid workers and civilians are protected. He added that the United States will look “very carefully at what those steps are.” “[Civilian] safety has to be a priority, and military operations need to be designed around their protection, not the other way around,” said Blinken.

The U.S. emphasis on seeing how the situation on the ground develops in the coming days makes it clear that the attack on WCK has led to a fundamental shift in Washington’s stance on the war in Gaza. Earlier this week, Kirby himself insisted that the U.S. stood by its support for Israel in the war.

Months ago, the U.S. loudly celebrated Israel’s announcement that it would allow aid through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the south of the Gaza Strip. This time, however, the announcement comes amid the Biden administration’s growing frustration over Israel’s tactics in Gaza and its numerous obstacles to the entry of humanitarian aid. Biden’s support for Israel has also taken a heavy political toll, as seen in the “uncommitted” protest vote at the primaries and the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that are held at all of Biden’s public event outside the White House.

Even some of the most pro-Israel politicians in the Democrat Party have openly called for conditions to be placed on the military aid given to Israel. Without this aid, Israel would be in a much weaker position, especially if its assassination of a high-ranking Iranian military commander in the ambassador’s residence in Damascus ends up triggering an open war with Iran or Hezbollah, Iran’s allied militia in Lebanon. The U.S. gives more military aid to Israel than to any other country: $3.8 billion annually. In fact, despite Biden and Netanyahu’s differences over strategy of the war in Gaza, Israel’s plans to launch a ground invasion of Rafah and the entry of humanitarian aid, the U.S. government has been quietly authorizing the transfer of billions of dollars in weapons to Israel: 1,800 MK84 2,000-pound bombs, 500 MK82 500-pound bombs and 25 F-35A fighter jets, according to the newspaper The Washington Post.

“We cannot approve the sale of arms to a country that is in violation of our own laws on [on the protection of civilian],” Senator Elizabeth Warren told CNN on Thursday, adding that she will try to block the arms sales to Israel in the Senate. “This is a moral question; it is also a legal question. Congress has responsibility here, and I’m willing to take that responsibility,” she said.

Indeed, Israeli concessions may be too late, too little. “The Biden administration is taking, rather late, some steps to exert pressure to make humanitarian aid to the Palestinians a higher priority than it was at the beginning of the war. It remains to be seen whether these measures and the new open corridors will be enough to solve the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Gaza,” said analyst Brian Katulis, an expert on U.S. foreign policy at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Even former president Donald Trump — the current Republican presidential candidate who, when in power, broke with decades of U.S. foreign policy and with the international consensus by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — believes that Israel is losing the public relations battle and must end the war as soon as possible.

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