The US is asking Israel to take greater care to protect civilians and limit damage to infrastructure if it launches an offensive in southern Gaza to avoid further displacements that would overwhelm humanitarian efforts, senior US officials said.
The Israeli offensive in northern Gaza has proven devastating, with thousands of Palestinians killed and vast numbers of survivors left homeless and forced to flee south by a relentless bombing campaign and a lack of essentials such as food, power and water.
As Israel begins to look toward south Gaza to continue battling Hamas militants after a pause in fighting to release hostages, U.S. officials said they have been talking to the Israelis about taking greater care in the south, where there were now about 2 million people.
The message has been delivered from President Joe Biden on down, the officials told reporters on a conference call.
“We have reinforced this in very clear language with the government of Israel – very important that the conduct of the Israeli campaign when it moves to the south must be done in a way that is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant further displacement of persons,” one official said.
“You cannot have the sort of scale of displacement that took place in the north, replicated in the south. It will be beyond disruptive, it will be beyond the capacity of any humanitarian support network,” the official said, adding “It can’t happen.”
The official said the campaign needed to be “deconflicted” from power, water, humanitarian sites and hospitals in south and central Gaza, meaning avoid attacks on those types of infrastructure sites.
He said the Israelis had been receptive to the notion “that a different type of campaign has to be conducted in the south.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday described an extended truce between Israel and Palestinian militants Hamas as “a glimpse of hope and humanity,” but warned it was not enough time to meet the aid needs of the Gaza Strip.
Mediator Qatar said on Monday the initial four-day truce had been extended by two days, continuing a pause in seven weeks of warfare that has killed thousands and laid waste to the Palestinian enclave.
A second U.S. official said Washington would like to see the humanitarian pause extended as long as possible.
The official said the first of three relief aid flights conducted by the U.S. military would land in northern Sinai on Tuesday carrying badly needed supplies for Gaza, with two more planned in coming days.
The flights would bring medical items, food aid and winter items that would be delivered by the United Nations.
The officials said aid deliveries to Gaza were currently running at about 240 truckloads a day but this was nowhere near enough to meet needs.
They said the effort would need to turn to commercial contracts to get deliveries up to 400 trucks a day and the U.S. side had been discussing this with Israel.
“To get that volume of assistance, inspection procedures will need to be increased and enhanced and you’re going to need to resort to commercial contracting within Gaza to meet the trucks coming in from Egypt,” the first official said.
“We hope that after this pause concludes that can be phase two of the humanitarian program,” he said.