Biden says Israel’s response in Gaza ‘over the top’, seeks pause in fighting

By Thomson Reuters Feb 9, 2024 | 1:08 AM

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Humeyra Pamuk

DOHA/TEL AVIV (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden said Israel’s military response in Gaza was “over the top” and that he was seeking a sustained pause in fighting as diplomats sought to salvage ceasefire talks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a Hamas proposal.

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday.

Biden’s remarks are some of his sharpest public criticism to date of Netanyahu’s government and follow increasing domestic pressure to convince Israel to stop its attacks.

Biden also said he has been pushing for a deal to normalise Saudi Arabia-Israel relations, increased humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians and a temporary pause in fighting to allow the release of hostages taken by Hamas.

“I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage ceasefire,” Biden said. “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s gotta stop.”

In a sign that diplomacy was not over, a Hamas delegation led by senior official Khalil Al-Hayya arrived in Cairo on Thursday for ceasefire talks with mediators Egypt and Qatar.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday terms proposed by Hamas for a ceasefire in the four-month-old war were “delusional” and vowed to fight on, saying victory was in reach and just months away.

Gazans are desperately hoping a ceasefire could arrive in time to head off a threatened Israeli assault on Rafah, hard against Gaza’s southern border fence and now home to over a million people, many of them living in makeshift tents.

An Israeli operation in Rafah without due consideration for the plight of civilians would be “a disaster”, said White House spokesperson John Kirby, adding “we would not support it.”

Israeli planes bombed parts of the city on Thursday morning, residents said, killing at least 11 people in strikes on two houses. Tanks also shelled some areas in eastern Rafah, intensifying residents’ fears of an imminent ground assault.

Mourners wept over the bodies of those killed in an air strike that hit the Tel Al-Sultan neighbourhood. The corpses were laid out in white shrouds. A man carried the body of a small child in a black bag.

“Suddenly in a blink of an eye, rockets fell on children, women, and elderly men. What for? Why? Because of the upcoming ceasefire? Usually before any ceasefire this happens,” said resident Mohammed Abu Habib.

Emad, 55, a father of six in Rafah who fled his home elsewhere, said they had nowhere left to run. “We have our backs to the (border) fence and faces toward the Mediterranean. Where should we go?” he said.

Israel says it takes steps to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas militants of hiding among civilians, including at school shelters and hospitals, leading to more civilian deaths. Hamas has denied this.

Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if Israel follows through on its threat to enter Rafah, one of the last remaining areas of the Gaza Strip that its troops have not moved into, where people are desperate for shelter.

“We’re living in a place meant for animals,” said Umm Mahdi Hanoon, standing among the cages of a chicken coop which her family shares with four others. “Imagine a child sleeping in a chicken crate… sometimes we wish the morning won’t come.”

Israel began its military offensive after Hamas militants from Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies.

Gaza’s health ministry says at least 27,840 Palestinians have been confirmed killed, and more than 67,000 injured since the conflict began.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Andrew Mills and Samia Nakhoul in Doha, Humeyra Pamuk in Tel Aviv, Bassam Massoud in Gaza, Mohamed Ahmed Hassan in Cairo, Michele Kambas in Nicosia, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Geneva, Dan Williams in Tel Aviv, Steve Holland in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Sharon Singleton, Alexandra Hudson, Diane Craft and Michael Perry; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Cynthia Osterman and Miral Fahmy)