US stands firm on Israel arms supply amid Gaza's soaring death toll
Facing a soaring death toll from Israel's renewed offensive in southern Gaza, the Biden administration is trying to pressure its ally to minimise civilian deaths while stopping well short of the kind of measures that might force it to listen, such as threatening to restrict military aid.
Top U.S. officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have urged Israel publicly to conduct a more surgical offensive in the south to avoid the heavy civilian casualties inflicted by its attacks in the north.
About 900 people in Gaza were killed in Israeli airstrikes between Friday when a truce ended and Monday, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
Washington is for now ruling out withholding delivery of weapons or harshly criticising Israel as a means of changing its tactics because the U.S. believes the existing strategy of privately negotiating is effective, according to two U.S. officials.
"We think what we're doing is moving them" a senior U.S. official said, citing how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shifted from refusing to allow aid into Gaza to allowing nearly 200 trucks of assistance a day, saying those improvements were the result of intense diplomacy, not threats.
The U.S. official spoke after three days of resumed aerial bombardments of southern Gaza left residents pulling the bodies of children and adults from the rubble.
But the U.S. official said reducing military support to Israel would carry major risks.
"You start lessening aid to Israel, you start encouraging other parties to come into the conflict, you weaken the deterrence effect and you encourage Israel's other enemies," the official said.
The United States has called its support unwavering. The Israeli government appears unmoved by international demands to change its strategy.
"I must admit I sense that the prime minister feels zero pressure, and that we will do whatever it takes to achieve our military goals," Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser Ophir Falk told Reuters last week when asked about the international pressure on Israel.
Significant US leverage
The United States gives Israel $3.8 billion in military aid annually, ranging from fighter jets to powerful bombs that could destroy Hamas tunnels, and the Biden administration has asked Congress to approve an additional $14 billion.
Such support gives Washington "significant leverage" over how the war against Hamas is conducted, said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at The Project on Middle East Democracy.
"Withholding certain types of equipment or delaying refilling stockpiles of various arms would force the Israeli government to adjust strategies and tactics because they would not be guaranteed to have more in the pipeline," said Binder. "To date, the administration has demonstrated an unwillingness to use that leverage."
Weighing on Biden is the 2024 presidential election, even as senior aides have stepped up calls for Israeli restraint. Any attempt to cut aid could hurt the Democratic president with pro-Israel independent voters as he seeks re-election.
Biden also faces pressure from a faction of progressive Democrats who want the U.S. to set conditions on military aid to its closest Middle East ally, and for the president to support calls for an immediate ceasefire.
A senior Israeli security source said that so far there has been no change in U.S. support for Israel. "At the moment there is an understanding and there is continued coordination," said the source. "If the U.S. shifts course, Israel will have to speed up its operations and wrap things up quickly."
Fighting between Israel and Hamas resumed on Friday after a seven-day pause to exchange hostages and prisoners and deliver humanitarian aid. Israel is retaliating for an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants that it says killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages.
Gaza's health ministry said on Tuesday that at over 16,200 Palestinians, 70% of them women or children, have been killed in Israeli bombardments over eight weeks of warfare.