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Biden criticizes Israel for ‘over the top’ Gaza offensive

President Joe Biden.
US President Joe Biden speaks at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Leesburg, Virginia, on Feb. 8, 2024. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Bloomberg ɫ̳ | Tribune ɫ̳ Service

U.S. President Joe Biden criticized the extent of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, as tension builds over Israeli plans to push into Rafah, where more than one million people have sought refuge.

“The conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top,” Biden said Thursday at the White House. “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving. A lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying. And it’s got to stop.”

The president’s comments marked an escalation in his criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war against Hamas. They came after the Israeli leader previewed plans for ground forces to enter the city of Rafah, which lies to the south of Gaza and near the Palestinian territory’s border with Egypt.

Israel launched airstrikes in the area overnight, killing at least eight Palestinians, the Associated Press reported.

The White House has expressed concern about the fate of refugees gathered in and around Rafah, saying it would not support an offensive that did not account for the impact on civilians.

A military operation there right now would be a “disaster for those people and it’s not something that we would support,” U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday.

Rafah is the main point of entry for aid coming from Egypt. The south of the strip is were around half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people fled to in the early part of the war as Israel concentrated its assault on Gaza City in the north.

At the White House, Biden said he’s pressured the Israeli government to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza. His administration is working toward a sustained pause in military operations to allow for the release of hostages taken by Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union.

The Iran-backed group killed 1,200 people when its militants broke out of Gaza and rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel’s retaliatory air and ground offensive has killed more than 27,000 people in Gaza, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory.

“I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire,” the president said. “If we could get that initial delay, I think that we would be able to extend that so that we can increase the prospect that this fighting in Gaza changes.”

Hamas fighters abducted about 250 people during their incursion. Roughly 100 hostages were freed during an earlier, week-long truce that ended on Dec. 1.

The fate of the remaining captives is dominating political discussion in Israel. The Israeli military has said that of the 136 still in Gaza, 31 are dead.

The death toll in Gaza has raised international pressure on Israel, a key U.S. ally, to bring the fighting to an end. It has also caused political complications for Biden ahead of the November presidential election, in which he is seeking a second term. In some swing states such as Michigan, Biden’s losing support among Arab- and Muslim-Americans for not doing more to stop the war.

—With assistance from Josh Wingrove and Hadriana Lowenkron.

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