Biden tells Netanyahu 'immediate ceasefire is essential' in call after Israeli strike on aid workers

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Thursday, April 4, 2024
Biden tells Israel's Netanyahu future US support for war depends on new steps to protect civilians
President Joe Biden has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu future U.S. support for the Gaza war depends on new steps to protect civilians and aid workers.

Washington -- President Joe Biden on Thursday told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the overall humanitarian situation in Gaza is unacceptable and warned Israel to take steps to address the crisis or face consequences, a stark statement from Israel's staunchest ally.

The conversation was the two leaders' first phone call since an Israeli strike killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen who were working in Gaza. That incident has sent off furor inside the White House and Biden has been described as reaching a new level of frustration with Israel's campaign in Gaza.

"President Biden emphasized that the strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable," the White House said in a statement shortly after the call wrapped. "He made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel's immediate action on these steps."

Biden also said Israel needed to "announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers."

This combination photo shows President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pa., and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 28, 2023.
This combination photo shows President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pa., and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 28, 2023.

If the United States does not see changes in Israel's policies to protect civilians in Gaza, "there'll be changes in our own policy," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Brussels after the call.

Israel has acknowledged responsibility for the strikes but said the convoy was not targeted and the workers' deaths were not intentional. The country continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the killings.

The strikes, which killed seven workers with the World Central Kitchen - including a dual US-Canadian citizen - have set off a furor inside the Biden White House even as the administration's public support for Israel remains unwavering.

Blinken said Israel should not stoop to the level of Hamas in its response to the group's October 7 attacks.

"Israel is not Hamas," Blinken said. "Israel is a democracy, Hamas a terrorirst organization. And democracies place the highest value on human life - every human life.

Blinken acknowledged the World Central Kitchen strike was not the first time Israel has killed aid workers in the conflict.

"It must be the last," he said.

In a statement on Tuesday reacting to the strikes, Biden explicitly blamed Israel for failing to protect aid workers and civilians in Gaza, saying he was outraged by the deaths of the World Central Kitchen workers and adding: "Incidents like yesterday's simply should not happen."

But the strikes still appear to have not threatened the relationship between Israel and the United States - its largest and most important ally. Biden is set to green light an $18 billion sale of fighter jets from the United States and Israel and the administration recently authorized the transfer to Israel of over 1,000 500-pound bombs and over 1,000 small-diameter bombs, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The president has called for a temporary ceasefire that includes the release of hostages held by Hamas, and has repeatedly said he does not want Israel to undertake a ground invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, where scores of displaced Gazans have sought shelter, but he has so far stopped short of calling for a permanent ceasefire.

Biden's hesitance to do so is increasingly out of step with the actions and public statements of other world leaders, including US allies.

Biden said last month Netanyahu was "hurting Israel more than helping Israel," causing Netanyahu in turn to say Biden was wrong on his assessment of how Israel has acted in Gaza.

While Biden has criticized the way Netanyahu has waged his war, the messaging surrounding Biden's support for Israel has remain unchanged since the deadly strikes.

"Now, I want to make it clear that while we take issue with aspects of how operations are being conducted ... we also continue to believe and continue to act on the belief that Israel has a right to defend itself against a still-viable threat by Hamas," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday. "They still have every right and responsibility to their people to eliminate that threat after the 7th of October.

"And so," he added, "that support for Israel continues."

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.