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Israel takes steps to meet US demands following Biden's threats

Asia
 A Palestinian inspects a vehicle where employees from the World Central Kitchen aid group were killed in an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza, April 2, 2024. [Reuters]

One day following U.S. President Joe Biden's warning to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that he will change policy unless Israel adjusts its war conduct, Israel took steps to allow more aid in and announced the dismissal of two officers in connection with the airstrike that killed seven international aid workers in Gaza earlier this week.

In a statement announcing the conclusion of its investigation into the April 1 incident, the Israel Defense Forces said a brigade commander and brigade chief of staff would be dismissed. A brigade commander, a division commander and the head of the southern command received reprimands.

The IDF said the officers misidentified three aid vehicles operated by the international food aid group World Central Kitchen, believing a Hamas gunman was hiding in the trucks. The strikes, they said, “were carried out in serious violation of the commands and IDF Standard Operating Procedures.”

Speaking from the tarmac prior to his departure from Brussels Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is reviewing “very carefully” IDF’s investigation report and will be discussing further with Israeli officials and with humanitarian organizations.

“It’s very important that Israel is taking full responsibility for this incident,” he said. “Even more important is making sure that steps are taken going forward to ensure that something like this can never happen again."

The IDF released its report shortly after Blinken, speaking earlier Friday alongside European leaders, demanded a “public accounting” of the killing of the World Central Kitchen team.

Israel earlier announced it was taking steps to further facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, including reopening the Erez crossing, the only passenger terminal to travel in and out of Gaza.

It is also allowing humanitarian aid shipments to be processed through its Ashdod port, which would allow more aid coming in from Jordan. The government did not elaborate on quantities or types of items to be let in.

Blinken welcomed Israel’s announcements to open Erez and Ashdod but said, “The real test is results.”

“What we’re looking to see in the days and weeks ahead is prioritization, surging humanitarian assistance, sustaining it and getting it to people who need it, making sure that those who are providing it are safe and secure, and maximizing every effort to protect civilians — those who are caught in this crossfire of Hamas’ making,” he said. “We just can’t have so many people caught in that crossfire, killed, injured going forward.”

He underscored that “almost 100% of the population is acutely food insecure” and warned Washington will be watching that “indicators of potential famine” are “reversed.”

Biden’s demands

Opening up more entry points to increase humanitarian aid is one of several things that Biden told Netanyahu needed to happen in “days” during a tense call between the two leaders Thursday.

Asked Friday whether he had threatened to withdraw military aid to Israel, Biden replied, “I asked them to do what they’re doing.”

The White House said the attack on the WCK convoy had “shaken” Biden and was the “impetus” for the call.

The president, according to the White House readout of the call, pushed other demands, including better protection of civilians and aid workers, along with movement toward “an immediate cease-fire” in the nearly six-month conflict. He said the strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are “unacceptable.”

Continued U.S. support for Israel’s war with Hamas will be determined by how Israel adopts new measures to meet these demands, National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby reiterated to reporters on Friday.

Kirby again sidestepped questions on whether the United States would cut off military aid to Israel.

“Our Gaza policy will be affected greatly by our assessment of how the Israelis meet these commitments over time in a sustainable way,” he said. “As for the conditioning aid, I am simply not going to go into greater detail about the conversation between the two leaders.”

Biden’s stern demands to Netanyahu marks a dramatic shift in U.S. policy.

His calls for an “immediate cease-fire” amount to pressure on Netanyahu to “loosen his demands of Hamas to achieve an agreement for a hostage exchange,” said Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador and distinguished fellow in U.S.-Middle East diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It is not the usual call for a “pause” or a time-limited ceasefire,” he said in a social media post. “Biden wants a ceasefire now.”

Hamas insists that conditions for a cease-fire included a full and permanent Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza and release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in return for Israeli hostages being held in Gaza since the October 7 attack by its militants. Israel had said it is seeking only a temporary truce to free hostages.

Meeting with Muslim doctors

Days before he made demands to Netanyahu, Biden met with a group of Muslim community leaders, including three doctors who provided assistance in Gaza — his first meeting with people who had been on the ground since the war began.

He also met Wednesday with Senator Bernie Sanders, a Jewish lawmaker from Biden's own Democratic Party and vocal critic of Israel's war conduct and U.S. support for Israel.

In response to VOA’s question, Kirby said the meetings helped shape Biden’s decision to press Netanyahu.

He acknowledged Biden’s “concern and frustration has been growing” regarding Israel's war conduct and that the president’s decision was informed by conversations he had “with people who have their own views and their own experiences.”

The seven WCK victims held various nationalities, including a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, Jacob Flickinger. Kirby did not elaborate when asked to respond to criticism that Flickinger’s death moved Biden in a way that the deaths of 33,000 Palestinians did not.

Beyond questions of why Biden drastically ramped up pressure only after the killing of international aid workers, the IDF strike itself represented a failure in IDF's "tactical and operational discretion," said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Middle East analyst from Gaza and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“It is more than just the strike on an American Canadian that moves the president,” he told VOA. “It is an egregious and a horrendous example of the continued operational disregard” for the welfare of Gaza civilians and humanitarian staff, he told VOA.

The U.S., Israel’s key ally, has steadfastly supported the Jewish state’s war against Hamas, which began after the militant group’s October 7 terror attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and led to the capture of about 250 hostages.

Israel’s subsequent counteroffensive has killed more than 33,000 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel says the death toll includes several thousand militants.

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