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U.S. envoy hints at disagreement with Israel over timing to scale down war

3 min

The United States hinted on Friday at disagreement with Israel over how quickly to scale down the war in Gaza, with President Joe Biden's national security adviser saying such timing was now the subject of "intensive discussion" between the allies.

Israeli soldiers prepare to enter the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at Israel's border with Gaza in southern Israel, December 13, 2023. Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

The United States hinted on Friday at disagreement with Israel over how quickly to scale down the war in Gaza, with President Joe Biden's national security adviser saying such timing was now the subject of "intensive discussion" between the allies.

With intense ground fighting having expanded this month across the length of the Gaza Strip and aid organisations warning of a humanitarian catastrophe, Biden said at the start of the week that Israel risked losing international support because of "indiscriminate" air strikes killing civilians.

Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, visited Israel on Thursday and Friday, and U.S. officials briefed journalists that he was carrying a message to Israel to scale down the broad military campaign and transition to more narrowly targeted operations against Hamas leaders.

The New York Times quoted four U.S. officials as saying Biden wanted that to happen in around three weeks. But speaking to reporters, Sullivan avoided a direct answer about the timing.

"There will be a transition to another phase of this war, one that is focused in more precise ways on targeting the leadership and on intelligence-driven operations," he said.

"When exactly that happens and under exactly what conditions will be a continuing intensive discussion between the United States and Israel," he said.

"The conditions and the timing for that was obviously a subject of conversation I had with" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, other Israeli government leaders and military commanders, added Sullivan.

During Sullivan's visit, Israeli officials publicly emphasised that they would carry on the war until they achieve their stated aim of eradicating Hamas, the Islamist militant group whose fighters rampaged through Israeli towns killing 1,200 people and capturing 240 hostages on Oct. 7

Netanyahu told Sullivan on Thursday Israel would fight "until absolute victory". Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the war would "last more than several months".

Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Israel was winning the war and degrading Hamas, citing as evidence a reduction in the number of rockets fired into Israel.

But hours later there were sirens in Jerusalem and explosions overhead from at least three interceptions by Israel's Iron Dome air defences, for the first time in weeks. The armed wing of Hamas claimed responsibility the rocket attack in response to "Zionist massacres against civilians".

AID ROUTE OPENED

Sullivan did appear to obtain one major concession from Israel, which announced shortly after he left that it would open the main road link into Gaza for aid shipments for the first time since the war began, which it said would allow aid deliveries to double.

Previously, aid permitted into Gaza has been trucked to Israel's Kerem Shalom crossing, inspected there, and then trucked back into Egypt to enter through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing, designed mainly for pedestrians.

Aid agencies, warning of mass starvation and disease for Gaza's 2.3 million residents, have long pleaded for Israel to speed up deliveries by letting aid enter directly at Kerem Shalom. The Israeli cabinet said its decision to do so would allow 200 trucks per day to bring supplies into Gaza, compared to a capacity of just 100 at Rafah.

Sullivan said Washington welcomed "this significant step," which he said he had been informed of before he left. The World Health Organization called it good news.

'BALL OF FIRE'

Gaza health authorities say close to 19,000 people have been confirmed killed, with thousands more feared buried under rubble.

Gaza residents reported another night of intense fighting and bombardment the length of the enclave on Friday, including in Sheijaia, Sheikh Radwan, Zeitoun, Tuffah, and Beit Hanoun in the north, and in the centre and northern fringes of the main southern city Khan Younis.

Hospitals in Deir al-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah reported a new influx of dead and wounded early on Friday.

"The Gaza Strip turned into a ball of fire overnight, we could hear explosions and gunshots echoing from all directions," Ahmed, 45, an electrician and father of six, told Reuters from a shelter in a central area of the densely populated enclave.

"They can destroy homes and roads and kill civilians from the air or through blind tank shelling, but when they come face to face with the resistance, they lose. We don't have anything to lose after all they had done to our Gaza," he said.

Washington has shielded its long-term ally diplomatically so far, including vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution a week ago, but Biden's strong remarks this week were a clear shift in tone. The three-week timeline to transition to targeted operations, cited by the New York Times, would mean the broad ground war being scaled back in the early days of 2024.

The past two weeks have seen an intensification of combat since a week-long truce collapsed at the start of December, with Israel now extending its ground campaign from the northern half of the enclave into the south.

Although Israel had said its forces had largely achieved their objectives in the north, fighting there has only worsened, while also spreading to the south, where most of the population is now sheltering. The vast majority of Gazans have been driven from their homes over the past two months, many several times.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo and Shani and Fadi Shana in Gaza, Henriette Chacar, Ari Rabinovitch and Frank Jack Daniel in Jerusalem, Andrea Shalal, Jeff Mason and Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Mark Heinrich, Peter Graff)

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