Biden urges Israeli leader to minimize civilian casualties in war with Hamas

WASHINGTON — In a private phone call Tuesday, President Joe Biden urged Israel’s prime minister to minimize civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip as Israel sets out to destroy Hamas in reprisal for the deadliest attack the country has suffered in the last 50 years, two Biden administration officials and a former official told NBC News.

The Biden administration is coordinating with other countries on a plan that would offer safe passage out of Gaza for civilians who risk getting caught in the crossfire in the densely populated coastal enclave, administration officials said.

Palestinian civilians and Americans in Gaza would escape the war zone through a southern corridor leading into Egypt under the plan being considered.

With Israel preparing for a potential ground incursion into Gaza, civilians who have no connection to Hamas are in danger of being left homeless or killed by the shelling.

In talking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden was more direct than in previous calls that the Israeli military should take pains to avoid civilian casualties, the U.S. officials said. Biden’s message suggests the White House will be attuned to any blowback if Israel is seen as using excessive force resulting in the deaths of women, children and noncombatants.

Biden made it clear in a 10-minute address Tuesday after the phone call that he stands with Israel and will commit U.S. military aid to protect it from future attacks.

“Like every nation in the world, Israel has the right to respond — indeed, has a duty to respond — to these vicious attacks,” he said.

In a video of the call released Tuesday by the prime minister’s office, Netanyahu details some of the violence perpetrated by Hamas terrorists, describing families’ being killed in their homes, women raped and murdered, soldiers beheaded and children burned and executed.

“We’ve never seen such savagery in the history of the state. They’re even worse than ISIS,” he said in the video. “They’re even worse than ISIS, and we need to treat them as such.”

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters that on the call “the two leaders spoke in a collaborative fashion, as they always do.”

A readout of the call provided by the White House said Biden “underscored the need for all countries to unequivocally condemn Hamas’s brutal atrocities, which are akin to the atrocities of ISIS from many years ago.”

An open question since Hamas launched its surprise attack over the weekend is whether Biden will give Netanyahu a free hand to rout Hamas by any means necessary — or insist that he throttle back if civilian deaths in Gaza start to pile up.

In his speech, Biden said he told Netanyahu that “if the United States experienced what Israel is experiencing, our response would be swift, decisive and overwhelming.”

He added: “We also discussed how democracies like Israel and the United States are stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law. Terrorists purposefully target civilians, kill them. We uphold the laws of war — the law of war. It matters.”

International laws of war call for proportionality and avoiding the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

President Joe Biden speaks about the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel at the White House on Tuesday. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

American presidents have played restraining roles in the past. As Israel bombed Gaza in 2014 in response to Palestinian rocket attacks, President Barack Obama called on both sides of the conflict “to act with reasonableness and restraint.”

Biden faces competing pressures from inside his party and out about how Israel conducts the war. As a close ally of Israel that has provided billions of dollars in weapons over the years, the U.S. typically has great sway in Jerusalem.

Far-right Republicans want Israel to lead an unfettered assault that vanquishes Hamas and prevents such attacks from happening again.

“I’ll say this to Prime Minister Netanyahu: Finish them,” Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, told Fox News.

But a left-wing faction of the Democratic Party has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Some liberal House members have called on Biden to cut off aid to Israel unless Palestinians are accorded more rights.

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., wrote Saturday on social media that “we must do our part to stop this violence and trauma by ending U.S. government support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid.”

But the divide isn’t quite so precise. Horrified by the brutal attack and the threat to Israel’s sovereignty, people close to Biden’s administration want to see Israel mount a counterattack that guarantees its safety for years to come.

Tom Nides, the Biden administration’s former ambassador to Israel, said in an interview that Hamas, though it lives alongside Palestinians, is heedless of their suffering.

“The goal of Hamas is to create a regional war against the state of Israel,” he said. “And they don’t care what the costs will be for that to be created, including the death and destruction of innocent Palestinians.”

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