US officials have grown progressively more frustrated with Israel’s military actions and leadership regarding the targeting of civilians in Gaza. This frustration has been expressed in calls and meetings over the past 40 days, highlighting mounting concerns within the diplomatic exchanges.
Israel has launched aerial, naval and land operations all across Gaza as it says it wants to put an end to Hamas over the militant group’s October 7 attacks, the deadliest Israel has witnessed in decades. In the meantime, Israel has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians and killed or injured thousands more.
Sources familiar with the discussions between American and Israeli officials pointed to recent comments by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as a sign of the Biden administration no longer being entirely on the same page as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as it relates to the Gaza operation.
That is unlikely to significantly change US policy or support for Israel as some progressive Democrats have been demanding in recent days.
It is unclear who will control Gaza, which Hamas has run for years now, if and when Israel concludes that it has achieved its goal(s).
Blinken told reporters that “much more” was needed to be done to protect civilians in Gaza and that “far too many Palestinians” had been killed in the weeks following the October 7 attack.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Blinken made it “very clear” to the Israelis what he was saying in private during his two trips to Israel since the attack.
Another sign of diverging views was when Netanyahu claimed that Israel would have some security authority over Gaza if and when the current war ended.
But Blinken said Washington was opposed to any reoccupation or besiegement of Gaza.
Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories and violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank has been another point of contention raised by both Blinken and the Pentagon chief.
As recently as Thursday, Blinken told Benny Gantz, an Israeli War Cabinet member, that the Netanyahu government needed to take “affirmative steps to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank, including by confronting rising levels of settler extremist violence.”
Israeli army under the microscope
Additionally, the US sent thousands of troops and assets back to the Middle East after reducing its footprint in recent years.
Washington is also concerned about the chances of getting dragged into a broader conflict in the region. American troops in Iraq and Syria have already come under attack by Iran-backed militias just under 60 times since October 17, with dozens of service members being injured. A US warship has also shot down a drone by what the Pentagon believes was fired by the Houthis in Yemen. Meanwhile, a $32-million-dollar US drone was shot down by the Houthis two weeks ago.
The longer the Gaza war goes on, the longer US troops in the region will be at increased risk of being attacked. It also means that assets potentially needed to focus on what the Pentagon says is its “pacing challenge,” China, and the “acute threat” posed by Russia will be unavailable.
US presses Israel about operations
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also been pressing his Israeli counterpart about operations being carried out by the Israeli army recently, as well as violence in the West Bank.
Al Arabiya English reviewed 21 readouts from the Pentagon of phone calls between Austin and Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant since October 7. Austin also made a trip to Israel a week after the Hamas attack.
In the first four readouts, plus an additional one of Austin’s meeting with Gallant in Israel, no mention was made by the US side of the need to protect civilians or abide by international law of conflict.
Austin told Gallant of the importance of “adhering to the law of war, including civilian protection obligations, and addressing the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza” during their October 14 call, a week after Israel launched its military operations, which it said were meant to defeat Hamas. Thousands of Palestinian civilians – men, women and children – had already been slaughtered, with thousands more forcibly displaced by that time.
US officials have noticed a slight change in Israeli operations recently as they say they are trying to minimize casualties.
But the Pentagon will not get ahead of the White House on policy matters, said Bilal Saab, Defense and Security Program Director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI).
“The White House sets policy as well as the tone, and the Pentagon executes. So, if you don’t like what the Pentagon is doing, blame the White House, not the [Defense] Department,” Saab told Al Arabiya English.
At that point, the international outcry over the civilian deaths began to change the calculus in Washington and started to become more central during talks between US and Israeli officials.
On October 18, the US vetoed a UN resolution to condemn all violence against civilians and to urge for a humanitarian ceasefire. The US said the resolution did not have strong enough language stipulating Israel’s right to defend itself. However, the resolution did condemn “the heinous terrorist attacks by Hamas.”
Some US officials believe the decision to veto the UN resolution provided Israel with more of a sense of impunity to do what it deemed necessary in Gaza, including disregarding the mounting civilian death toll.
Frustration began surfacing within the Biden administration and the State Department. One senior State Department official resigned, publicly lambasting the administration’s disregard for human life in Gaza.
More diplomats have considered stepping down, but multiple diplomats who spoke to Al Arabiya English cited the financial difficulties of doing so. Being unable to pay home mortgages or school tuition fees for their children was among the obstacles facing diplomats and officials thinking about quitting in protest.
From October 16 – October 20, civilians and the need for the delivery of humanitarian aid were highlighted in readouts of calls between Austin and Gallant.
But the language took a turn on October 21 when Austin “reiterated the importance of protecting civilians.”
Austin kept hammering Gallant with the need to protect civilians during Israel’s military operations during the next ten consecutive calls from October 21 until their latest call on Wednesday.
Sources familiar with Austin’s conversations said the Pentagon chief has been “candid” and “frank” with Gallant during their calls, asking for specific answers to questions about Israel’s military operations and targeting. Austin has also grilled Gallant about West Bank violence by Israelis, according to sources.
Biden penned an op-ed over the weekend threatening to issue visa bans on Israeli extremists attacking civilians in the West Bank.
This hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from flowing additional weapons into Israel and pushing for the approval of billions of dollars in new military assistance. Bloomberg reported recently that the Defense Department was going ahead with fulfilling Israeli requests for, among other weapons, laser-guided missiles and ammunition.
The sources familiar with the discussions said that Austin also emphasized in just about every call with Gallant the need to prevent the conflict from escalating outside of Gaza.
This was in reference to some Israeli officials calling for a pre-emptive strike against Lebanese Hezbollah, according to the sources.
National Security Council officials were also in touch with Beirut and Israel to make a point that any escalation would be devastating to Lebanon as well as have a significant negative impact on Israel.
US officials now believe they were able to deter Hezbollah from entering the fray, something which the Iran-backed group’s leader made clear they were not interested in for the time being. That, however, could change depending on the battlefront.
A senior advisor to US President Joe Biden traveled to Israel on Monday to try to prevent the conflict from spreading to Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.