HomeNewsU.S. officials signal pressure on Israel to address Gaza crisis

U.S. officials signal pressure on Israel to address Gaza crisis

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CAIRO, Egypt — Biden administration officials signaled Sunday that they were trying to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of an expected Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, even as the Palestinian death toll from airstrikes continued to rise and aid earmarked for the enclave remained stuck in Egypt.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said people in Gaza deserved “access to water and medicine and food. And we are working actively to ensure that happens,” he said. Israel had agreed to turn on “the water pipe,” he said, but only to southern Gaza.

President Biden, in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” told interviewer Scott Pelley that he thought an Israeli occupation of Gaza would be “a big mistake” and sought to draw a distinction between Hamas and ordinary Palestinians.

Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people,” Biden added, referring to the Palestinian militant group’s surprise incursions into Israel last week, which killed 1,400 civilians and soldiers.

And the State Department announced Sunday it had designated David Satterfield, a seasoned diplomat, as a special envoy for “Middle East humanitarian issues,” with a mandate to “facilitate the provision of life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable people and promote the safety of civilians.”

That emphasis represented a shift for the Biden administration, which has given blanket support to Israel’s military operations in advance of a ground invasion that human rights groups say will result in large-scale civilian casualties. But there was little sign Sunday of any substantive steps toward easing the situation in Gaza, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israeli soldiers were “ready to take action at any time in order to defeat the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against us to destroy us.”

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Sunday that eight days of Israeli strikes in Gaza had killed 2,670 people and wounded 9,600.

Meanwhile, a siege has prevented food, fuel, electricity and water from getting to the enclave’s more than 2 million residents. An Israeli evacuation warning urging 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to move south has exacerbated the crisis, aid workers said.

Nearly a million people have been displaced in the space of a week, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Saturday. Gaza was running out of food and clean water, forcing people to use “dirty water from wells, increasing risks of waterborne diseases,” the agency warned.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken touched down in Egypt on Sunday, relief supplies sat at an airport in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, less than an hour’s drive from the border with Gaza. Some of the aid supplies — delivered by regional countries such as Turkey, as well as the United Nations — have been stranded on Egypt’s side of the border for days.

Diplomats and others familiar with the discussions said one of the main obstacles to the delivery of that aid is the Israeli government’s refusal to guarantee that it will not bomb relief trucks. One diplomatic official said negotiations were underway to allow Israel to inspect trucks entering Gaza.

A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to comment.

Humanitarian groups said they were desperate to see the aid start moving.

“We are calling on all parties to open the humanitarian corridor — to have a humanitarian pause in the conflict and to open the border, to allow supplies to go into children who need them right now,” Jeremy Hopkins, Egypt representative for UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, said in an interview Sunday.

Planeloads of aid from the United Nations had arrived on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza, he said, and included drinking water, hygiene kits and portable toilets.

“We don’t know when it’s coming. It needed to come eight days ago,” said Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA staffers, who had relocated to southern Gaza, were rationing water, she said. Half a million Palestinians were sheltering at the organizations’s facilities, under increasingly desperate conditions.

Touma said her agency had not been able to confirm that water, or some water, had been restored. Gaza receives water through a variety of sources, aside from the public water network, including from private vendors. Desalination plants and pumping stations require fuel, which Israel was still blocking.

“Nothing came into Gaza,” she said. “Not a grain of wheat.”

Blinken, in an interview with al-Arabiya, also said that “today, water was turned back on for Gaza.” But much of Gaza’s water comes from pumping stations and desalination plants, which cannot operate without electricity or fuel for generators.

Other diplomats were less optimistic than the Biden administration that progress was being made on the humanitarian front. “Gaza is running out of water, electricity and other essential supplies” even as aid stockpiled in Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel itself could be “dispatched with hours,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a late afternoon statement. “We are on the verge of the abyss in the Middle East,” he said, and neither the hostages being held by Hamas nor humanitarian aid to Gaza “should become bargaining chips.”

On Sunday, a State Department spokesperson said that 30 U.S. citizens had been killed in the conflict, and another 13 remained missing.

It remained unclear how many Americans were stuck in Gaza. Sullivan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the U.S. government was working to assist Americans attempting to leave.

The Biden administration, he said, was focusing on “making sure that all American citizens in Gaza have safe passage out of Gaza and into Egypt.”

Biden has stood steadfastly by Israel since the Hamas attacks just over a week ago, even as Israel has launched a bombardment of airstrikes on Gaza that have killed more than 2,600 people. Israel also ordered more than 1 million people in Gaza to evacuate in 24 hours, an order human rights groups have called impossible.

Biden also said in the interview that Hamas needs to be eliminated entirely but that there needs to be a path to a Palestinian state. But the president said he did not think Israel would pursue that path right now.

“But I think Israel understands that a significant portion of Palestinian people do not share the views of Hamas and Hezbollah,” Biden said.

Tensions continued to rise between Israel and Hamas. The armed wing of the Palestinian group said Sunday that it had bombed the town of Sderot in southern Israel, calling it retaliation for Israel’s bombing of civilians.

According to local news reports, the bombing occurred as Israeli authorities evacuated Sderot, a city of about 30,000 people near the Gaza Strip that was one of the first places Hamas militants targeted in their attack on Israel last weekend.

Sderot Deputy Mayor Elad Kalimi told the Times of Israel on Sunday that an estimated two-thirds of the city’s population had already evacuated.

Israel’s armed forces fired shells toward southern Lebanon early Sunday, after reports of a strike launched from within Lebanon against the northern Israeli town of Shtula. The two sides exchanged fire several times throughout the day.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service of Israel said one person was killed and three people were injured in the strike on Shtula, the Times of Israel reported.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, said it conducted the strike with guided missiles in response to Israeli attacks, including the shelling that killed a Reuters videographer and injured six other journalists in southern Lebanon on Friday.

In a statement, the Israeli military said one of its posts on the Lebanese border also came under fire.

It said it shut access to an “area up to four kilometers from the northern border with Lebanon” on Sunday morning in response to an “incident” in northern Israel. It asked residents not to enter or approach the area and warned that GPS signals would be restricted.

Fahim reported from Beirut and DeYoung from Washington. Annabelle Timsit in London, Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Kevin Sieff in Mexico City, Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem and Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington contributed to this report.

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