Biden authorizes aid drops into Gaza, as hostage deal remains in limbo

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President Biden on Friday authorized U.S. military airdrops of humanitarian aid to Gaza, reflecting his growing frustration with Israel’s military operations, the dire situation of more than 2 million Palestinians under siege inside the enclave and the failure of the United States and its negotiating partners to forge a deal between Israel and Hamas to stop the fighting.

In addition to the airdrops, which officials said would begin within days, “we’re going to insist that Israel facilitate more trucks and more routes to get more and more people the help they need,” Biden told reporters gathered in the White House for his meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“No excuses, because the truth is aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough,” he said. “Innocent lives are on the line and children’s’ lives are on the line. … I won’t stand by, we won’t let up and we’re trying to pull out every stop we can to get more assistance in.”

Humanitarian organizations have reported that Gazan civilians are in increasingly desperate straits, warning that hundreds of thousands of people are on the brink of famine and epidemic disease as aid delivered by truck convoy has been slowed and often intentionally blocked by Israel’s military operations. The administration has pushed the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to facilitate more assistance and adopt precision military tactics as it seeks to destroy Hamas.

The airdrop announcement came a day after more than 100 Palestinians died in northern Gaza on Thursday after a huge crowd swarmed an arriving convoy of food. It remained unclear, amid conflicting narratives, whether the dead were trampled in a melee or shot by Israeli military forces. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air and ground attacks, according to Gazan authorities, since the war began with Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. Accounts of the incident gave rise to a new level of global horror and criticism of Israel and the United States, its main ally and military supplier.

Israel, which provided security for the Thursday convoy, has said that its troops only fired above the crowd after some people moved toward soldiers “in a threatening manner.” But U.N. officials who carried medicine and fuel Friday to al-Shifa hospital, where dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded were brought, reported seeing “a large number of gunshot wounds” among the injured, according to Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

Israel has said it is launching an investigation. John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Friday that “our assessment is that they’re taking this seriously and they’re looking into what occurred.” But many around the world, including U.S. allies, have demanded an independent inquiry. Top European Union diplomat Josep Borrell said he was “horrified by news of yet another carnage among civilians in Gaza desperate for humanitarian aid,” and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed “deep indignation” over “civilians … targeted by Israeli soldiers.”

U.S. isolation has grown in the United Nations, where the United States has used its veto power three times to block resolutions in the 15-member Security Council demanding an immediate, permanent cease-fire. On Monday, the U.N. General Assembly, the body including all 193 member nations, has scheduled a meeting for the United States to “explain” the most recent U.S. veto last month.

The United States is also working on its own council resolution — unlikely to escape a veto from Russia, China or both — to endorse the limited cease-fire being discussed in negotiations.

The European Union on Friday said it would release 50 million euros ($54 million) to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees next week, after the United States and some other countries paused their funding to the agency over Israel’s allegations that some of its staff was involved in the Oct. 7 attack.

Video is said to show U.N. relief worker taking body of Israeli shot on Oct. 7

The administration has walked an increasingly narrow road between its support of Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks, particularly one as appalling as the Oct. 7 Hamas assault that left 1,200 Israelis dead, and a belief that Israeli operations in response have been, in Biden’s words, “over the top.”

Domestic anger has grown, particularly among young voters and many Democrats, as the president continues to push Congress to approve billions of dollars in supplemental funds to provide Israel with more military assistance.

“The Biden administration has leverage,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview Friday. “It doesn’t have to deliver these dollars [to Israel]. And I think it is time for the administration to use whatever leverage it has. … If this is what the war continues to look like, with people being shot and trampled as they desperately try to get their hands on one of a small number of food and flour trucks that’s entering Gaza, it is not in the U.S. interest to continue to be part of that.”

In private, some U.S. officials have expressed deep frustration and anger with what they see as an unyielding and even arrogant Israeli government, and suggest the Netanyahu administration may be approaching the point where its defiance of its U.S. partners and the international community can no longer be tolerated.

Netanyahu, in one recent conversation described by U.S. officials, cited an Israeli poll showing that most Israelis don’t want humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, at least until the hostages have been released. Amid talks for a fighting pause that would see the release of those hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, the United States and others have urged Israel to embrace a two-state solution as part of an end to the crisis and a long-term vision for stability. But Netanyahu’s government has grown dismissive.

For now, the administration is hoping for a temporary cease-fire deal to ease the suffering and pave the way toward a long-term solution to the decades-old Israel-Palestinian struggle. Along with Qatar and Egypt, it has put a plan on the table for a six-week pause in the fighting that would allow the exchange of about 100 Israelis still held hostage by Hamas inside Gaza for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and allow a significant increase in humanitarian assistance.

But while both sides have accepted the deal in principle, the proposed agreement is mired in the details as its authors race to beat an informal deadline — the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting that begins around March 10 — that is just over a week away.

Questions still to be resolved include how many trucks of aid will be allowed into Gaza, ratios of hostages to prisoners — and which ones — amid competing demands and refusals from Israel and Hamas. According to U.S., Arab and humanitarian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive talks, Hamas has yet to provide a complete list of the hostages it is holding and the ones it is prepared to release in an initial cease-fire, as Israel has demanded. Israel has said Hamas’s demand for “thousands” of prisoners, including some specific individuals with lengthy prison sentences, is “delusional.”

“Everybody is throwing things on the table,” said one informed Arab official, and both sides keep “changing the goal posts. … Nothing is concrete,” the official said.

There are significant disagreements over how many aid-laden trucks — now numbering between a handful and 200 entering Gaza each day from Egypt or a single entry point from Israel — will be required to meet what the United States has said needs to be a massive increase in humanitarian assistance. Hamas wants 500 trucks, the prewar number of daily crossings. The United States has said something close to that might be achievable if Israel were to open other crossings, as it has asked Netanyahu’s government to do.

Israel has charged that Hamas is siphoning off aid from the convoys bearing humanitarian assistance, and that the United Nations and other international organizations are either incompetent or complicit with Hamas.

Logistical and communications complications — along with uncompromising and inflammatory public statements from both sides — have caused frequent hitches in the weeks-long talks toward a deal. Hamas has said that a second phase of cease-fire and the release of all hostages could begin if Israel withdraws all of its troops from Gaza. Israel has said that once the initial pause is over, it intends to return to its mission of ensuring the total elimination of Hamas.

Any hostage release will also depend on preparations by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which escorted more than 100 Hamas hostages from Gaza during a previous week-long pause that was negotiated in November. The ICRC has not yet been notified to get ready for a new movement of hostages, a task that is likely to be far more complicated this time around, given the crowding, desperation and anger of Palestinians inside Gaza, according to humanitarian officials.

“Hopefully we will know shortly,” Biden said Friday. “We are trying to work out a deal between Israel and Hamas — the hostages being returned and the immediate cease-fire in Gaza for at least the next six weeks, and to allow the surge of aid to the entire Gaza Strip, not just the south.”

Calling the events in north Gaza on Thursday “tragic and alarming,” Biden said that “we need to do more, and the United States will do more.”

As it works to negotiate at least a temporary stop to the fighting, the administration expects to launch its first airdrop of aid into Gaza — joining existing efforts by Jordan and others — within the next few days, Kirby said. “This is going to be a sustained effort. This isn’t going to be one and done,” he said, while acknowledging that truck convoys were a much more efficient way of delivering assistance.

“The airdrops are to supplement delivery on the ground,” Kirby said. “You can’t replicate the size and scale and scope of a convoy of 20 or 30 trucks.” The administration, he said, was also considering sending ships full of humanitarian aid, a plan that would require permission from Israel, which controls Gaza’s maritime border.

Abigail Hauslohner and Matt Viser contributed to this report.

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