Biden Is Starting To Talk Tough On Israel. But Doubts Persist That He'll Use U.S. Leverage.

With Israel's Gaza operation set to expand to Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering, Biden's approach to truce talks and military aid draws skepticism.

President Joe Biden called Israel’s U.S.-backed military operation in Gaza “over the top” at a White House press conference Thursday night. Shortly before that, his administration released a new policy it claimed would ensure foreign countries don’t use U.S. military assistance to break international and U.S. laws protecting civilians.

But then Friday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that his forces will soon invade the most populous section of Gaza that they don’t yet control: the southern town of Rafah. Close to 1.5 million Palestinians are seeking shelter there and on the narrow strip of land that runs from Rafah to the Mediterranean Sea, many of them after fleeing from northern areas after Israeli evacuation orders. Netanyahu said Israel plans to evacuate people from Rafah ahead of a “massive” attack.

Experts and officials tell HuffPost they are extremely skeptical of suggestions this week from the Biden administration that it is adjusting U.S. policy to prevent further devastation in Gaza, where, according to health officials there, at least 28,000 people have been killed since Israel launched its campaign following the Oct. 7 attack by Gaza-based militants that killed 1,200 Israelis.

Biden’s Thursday night rebuke of Israel did not come with any indication that he will reduce U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel if it continues on its current trajectory. And though his new memo directing officials to ensure U.S. weapon transfers abide by the law sounds nice on paper, the administration is unlikely to actually enforce it in this case because Washington is so wary of steps that appear unsupportive toward Israel. Even in the best-case scenario, the memo would not affect hostilities in the days ahead.

In Massachusetts on Friday, Heiam Alsawalhi read Netanyahu’s announcement about pushing civilians out of Rafah and was left with a question: “Where will they go?”

Alsawalhi is a Palestinian American whose sister and her family of eight are living in a one-room shelter in Rafah. Hundreds of U.S. citizens remain trapped in Gaza despite promises by the Biden administration to help them leave through the tightly controlled southern border crossing into Egypt, and thousands of Americans have close relatives who are also stuck in the region, many of whom are eligible for U.S. assistance with evacuations but have yet to leave.

“Unfortunately, our government only provides funds to the aggressors,” Alsawalhi told HuffPost. “As a taxpayer, my money goes into killing my people, the indigenous people of Palestine. I feel so ashamed.”

The new policy of oversight on U.S. military assistance, crafted in collaboration with Democratic senators led by Chris Van Hollen (Md.), “creates some useful hooks to hold the administration accountable in a few months ― but does nothing for the Palestinians who are suffering today,” said Josh Paul, a former State Department official overseeing arms transfers who is now at the Democracy for the Arab World Now nonprofit. “The laws that this policy refers to are already on the books and are not being enforced.”

Israel is already preparing for a fresh surge of tough international scrutiny this month because of the International Court of Justice case over its conduct in Gaza. Israel must submit a report to the so-called World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, by Feb. 26 to show what it is doing to obey measures to shield civilians that the judges had ordered when on Jan. 26 they dealt Israel and the U.S. a blow by refusing to dismiss a claim that Israel is committing “genocide.” While Israel is preparing a response, which is expected to note steps such as investigations of war crimes by soldiers, as recently revealed by Haaretz, its report will likely be unable to show significant improvement. Aid groups say Gaza continues to deteriorate dramatically amid bombardment and a siege.

Palestinians survey the aftermath Friday from Israeli attacks in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. A building targeted in the attack and structures around it were damaged.
Palestinians survey the aftermath Friday from Israeli attacks in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. A building targeted in the attack and structures around it were damaged.
Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently concluded a trip to the Middle East to try to advance negotiations between Israel, the chief Gaza-based armed group Hamas and regional governments to reach a truce in the fighting that would involve the release of Israeli hostages captured on Oct. 7 by Palestinian militants. Speaking to HuffPost on Friday, two foreign officials expressed skepticism that the diplomatic effort would bear fruit soon, saying they see it as important but extremely tenuous.

“As long as there is a dialogue, I think it’s helpful. … We are probably reaching a moment where a tough decision needs to be taken,” a European official said. The other foreign official said the current positions of Israel and Hamas suggest that even if an agreement is reached, it would collapse very quickly.

The Biden administration is seen worldwide as the most important factor in ongoing truce talks and managing the risk of a possible massacre in Rafah, given its influence over Israel. Blinken on Thursday said Israel must keep civilians “first and foremost in mind” in considering its next military move.

The U.S. is in a position to prevent such a decision [on invading Rafah] to greenlight it or to yellow-light it,” said Eran Etzion, a former deputy national security adviser for the Israeli government. “All it takes is a [U.S.] phone call with the right wording, and both sides know it… Israel is totally dependent on U.S. material support, arms shipments and its diplomatic umbrella at the [United Nations] and elsewhere.”

If Etzion were advising the Biden administration, he said, he would recommend pushing Israel to be more serious about the possible truce-hostage release deal rather than focusing on tactical questions, such as its next military maneuver, calling that approach more “strategic.”

“There’s no question the U.S. has leverage,” Etzion said. “There is a question of when and how it will choose to use it.”

‘Lipstick On A Pig’

Meaningful U.S. pressure on Israel to abide by human rights norms and American foreign policy goals has always been rare, and current U.S. officials have told HuffPost that the Biden administration has been particularly resistant to that idea, given the trauma of the Oct. 7 attack and the president’s traditionalist views.

Despite the fanfare around Biden’s moves this week, former Pentagon attorney Sarah Harrison argued on X (formerly Twitter) that his policy on U.S. military aid for countries including Israel appears likely to perpetuate old tendencies that are unhelpful.

Saying Biden’s new memo may amount to “lipstick on a pig,” Harrison warned against “another performative measure stirring up busy-bodied lawyers and policymakers in the bureaucracy, ultimately resulting in business as usual [on] arms transfers to Israel.”

“My skepticism is fueled by the administration’s knee-jerk decision to suspend funding to UNRWA [the chief U.N. agency supporting Palestinians], support a $14 billion weapons package to Israel and refusal to condition military assistance as the [Israeli military] prepares for operations in Rafah,” she wrote.

Asked whether Blinken raised concerns about U.S. citizens stuck in Gaza in recent discussions with Israel, a State Department spokesperson pointed to remarks Thursday that cast a Rafah offensive as unlikely. The spokesperson also said the U.S. does not have an updated count of those U.S. citizens and others eligible for evacuation support since a Jan. 4 press briefing that gave a broad estimate of “several hundred.”

Biden’s choices over whether and how far to challenge Netanyahu have particular significance for Israelis who worry about the consequences of their leader’s approach.

Etzion told HuffPost he believes a final decision on attacking Rafah has not yet been made by Netanyahu’s war cabinet and noted complexities Israeli officials have to account for, from the situation of displaced Palestinians to the risk of angering Egypt and the U.S. The move also “will have negative implications on any chances of negotiations with Hamas in Cairo and elsewhere on the hostages and the ending of the war,” he said.

Gili Roman, whose sister Yarden was captured by Gazan militants then released during the first pause in the war in November, told HuffPost that he sees American leverage as critical for the remaining hostages, estimated to be about 100. Many families of hostages have accused Netanyahu of deprioritizing their plight.

During a visit to Washington last week, Roman said sustaining a U.S. emphasis on a possible truce-release deal is important because it would put “a lot of positive pressure on the mediators and makes everyone work on it nonstop.”

Gili Roman and other family members of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and others in Gaza have repeatedly traveled to the U.S. seeking support amid fears their own government is not prioritizing their release.
Gili Roman and other family members of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and others in Gaza have repeatedly traveled to the U.S. seeking support amid fears their own government is not prioritizing their release.
Alexi Rosenfeld via Getty Images

His sister had her first “breakdown” since her release on the day the last truce collapsed and she realized her sister-in-law Carmel Gat, who had also been kidnapped, had not been freed, he told HuffPost. “We didn’t imagine it’s going to take more than double the time that [Yarden] was in captivity… She asked us to continue to speak on her behalf and advocate for Carmel.”

For Palestinians in Rafah, airy debates on diplomacy and strategy are moving nowhere near quickly enough.

Ahmed Abushaban is living in the city with a group of 30 family members in a tile shop of about 650 square feet that has a single toilet. Last night, an Israeli airstrike hit a house less than 7 feet from their building, he told HuffPost on Friday. His children are “sick most of the time” because they lack clean water, and he worries they will never be able to forget seeing and smelling corpses on their long walk to the south earlier in the war.

“We are living in a cold place with no clean water and very expensive food,” he said. Most Gazans are relying on the minimal humanitarian aid allowed in. Severe limits on shipments into the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel and Egypt mean those supplies are insufficient while the flow of commercial goods has been reduced to a trickle. People claiming to be able to buy exit permits to leave for Egypt have told Abushaban he should expect to pay $70,000 to $90,000 to get his family to safety. Meanwhile, attempts by his sister, a Canadian citizen, to help him have yet to bring results.

“We lost our homes, my company was bombed … . We will need years to get back to the same point we were before the 7th of October,” Abushaban said.

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