President Joe Biden is considering a trip to Israel in the coming days but no travel has been finalised as its military is carrying out daily bombardments of the besieged Palestinian enclave of Gaza, according to a senior US administration official.
The trip would come amid growing fears that a looming Israeli move into Gaza could spark a wider war with devastating humanitarian consequences. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza has already killed at least 2,750 Palestinians.
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And Biden’s presence could be seen as a provocative move by Iran, or potentially viewed as tone-deaf by Arab nations as civilian casualties mount in Gaza.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already been travelling around the Middle East this past week trying to prevent the war with Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, from igniting a broader regional conflict.
The official could not publicly discuss internal deliberations about the potential presidential travel and spoke on Sunday to The Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity.
Biden also made his strongest public statements yet to restrain Israel after the October 7 attacks by Hamas that killed more than 1,400 people in southern Israel, including at least 30 US citizens, warning in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday that Israel should not reoccupy Gaza.
“I think it’d be a big mistake,” Biden said. “Look, what happened in Gaza, in my view, is Hamas, and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.”
Israel left Gaza in 2005; Hamas won the elections the next year.
Still, Biden said, “taking out the extremists … is a necessary requirement”.
Biden and his administration have refused to criticise Israel or its bombing campaign that has killed civilians in Gaza.
But they have urged Israel, Egypt and other nations to allow for humanitarian aid and supplies into the worsening conflict zone.
“I’m confident that Israel is going to act under the rules of war,” Biden said in the interview.
“There’s standards that democratic institutions and countries go by. And I’m confident that there’s going to be an ability for the innocents in Gaza to be able to have access to medicine and food and water.”
Blinken, meanwhile, heard criticism of Israel’s military operation from Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. After Cairo, he travelled on to Jordan and planned to return to Israel on Monday, carrying to Israeli leaders the feedback he received in a rush of meetings with leaders throughout the Arab world.
Egypt’s state-run media said el-Sisi told Blinken that Israel’s Gaza operation has exceeded “the right of self-defence” and turned into “a collective punishment”.
Blinken told reporters before leaving Egypt that “Israel has the right, indeed it has the obligation to defend itself against these attacks from Hamas and to try to do what it can to make sure that this never happens again”.
Mindful of the potential human cost in Gaza, Blinken said, “The way that Israel does this matters. It needs to do it in a way that affirms the shared values that we have for human life and human dignity, taking every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”
Earlier on Sunday, the envoy met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh for talks that built upon earlier sessions with the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Blinken said what he heard in every meeting with Arab leaders “was a determination of shared view that we have to do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t spread to other places, a shared view to safeguard innocent lives, a shared view to get assistance to Palestinians in Gaza who need it and we’re working very much on that”.
The White House also appointed David Satterfield, a former ambassador to Lebanon and Turkey, to lead US efforts to get humanitarian assistance to “vulnerable people through the Middle East”. Satterfield was expected to arrive in Israel on Monday.
From Washington, Biden’s national security adviser said the US was not “making requests or demands of Israel with respect to its military operations”.
Jake Sullivan, making the rounds of the Sunday TV news shows, said the administration was “simply stating our basic principles – the principles upon which this country is based and all democracies, including Israel, are based. It’s what makes us different from the terrorists, that in fact, we respect civilian life.”
He said the US was “not interfering in their military planning or trying to give them instructions or requests specific”.
Sullivan said the US is conveying the message in public and in private that “all military operations should be conducted consistent with law of war, that civilians should be protected, that civilians should have a real opportunity to get to safety” and have access to food, water, medicine and shelter.
Those remarks marked a shift in the US administration’s comments in recent days as officials have heard Arab leaders’ concerns.
Those leaders expressed the consequences of what a humanitarian catastrophe resulting from an Israeli ground offensive would do not only to Palestinians but also in inflaming public opinions in Arab nations and potentially destabilising relatively friendly countries.
Sullivan also said the US has been unable so far to get American citizens out of Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah crossing with Gaza.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies