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US President Joe Biden has called for a “pause” in fighting between Israel and Hamas to help free hostages held in Gaza, as the Israeli military steps up its ground offensive in the blockaded enclave.
Speaking at an event in Minnesota on Wednesday, Biden was interrupted by an audience member who urged him to support a ceasefire in the Middle East conflict. “I think we need a break,” the president said. “A break is to give time to get the prisoners out.”
Biden’s comments do not constitute a call for a complete ceasefire, which the White House has resisted since the start of the war. war between Israel and Hamas started three weeks ago. But U.S. officials have said in recent days that they would consider supporting a temporary cessation of hostilities if it was limited to supporting humanitarian efforts.
The Israeli army struck the crowded Jabalia refugee camp again overnight, saying it had targeted a high-ranking Hamas commander there. Palestinian health authorities said two strikes on the northern Gaza camp this week killed nearly 200 people.
The Israeli ground offensive extends further south into Gaza City, the enclave’s largest population center and the center of Hamas’s political and military power. Israeli forces dropped around “10,000 munitions” on the city itself, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said. “We are at the gates of Gaza City,” Brigadier General Itzik Cohen said Wednesday.
Around 300 humanitarian trucks in total have been allowed into Gaza since the start of the war, compared to 400 daily before the war began. Biden has repeatedly asked Israelis to facilitate more aid, saying Wednesday that relief efforts “have a long way to go.”
The Israeli government has said the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains manageable, even as the U.N. and others report widespread shortages of food, clean water and medicine.
“The levels of distress and unsanitary living conditions were beyond belief,” Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of UNRWA, the main aid agency for Palestinian refugees, said after visiting Gaza on Wednesday. “Everyone was just asking for water and food.”
Biden added that he understood the “emotion” the conflict was generating on all sides. “It’s incredibly complicated for the Israelis. It’s incredibly complicated for the Muslim world as well,” he said. “I have supported a two-state solution from the beginning.”
More foreign nationals and some injured Palestinians should be allowed out of the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border, Western diplomats said. Just under 400 people were allowed to leave Wednesday, while more aid trucks were allowed in. The exit list proposed by Hamas on Thursday contained the names of 1,000 foreign nationals.
Biden’s remarks follow growing international concern over the high number of civilian casualties and deteriorating living conditions resulting from Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza as it attempts to crush Hamas, the group responsible for the deadly October 7 attack on Israel.
While supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, Biden urged the unity government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to minimize the civilian toll in its response and to stay within the bounds of humanitarian law and the rules of conflict international.
The president’s willingness to consider supporting a pause in the conflict comes as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans a visit to the Middle East, starting with Israel, for a new round of diplomatic negotiations on the conflict this week .
Hamas’ attack on Israel has killed around 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials, who add that 16 Israeli soldiers have been killed since its forces began their ground offensive in Gaza.
Israeli bombings have killed at least 8,800 people in Gaza and injured around 22,240, according to Palestinian officials. Israel has also severely restricted supplies of electricity, water, fuel and food to Gaza, prompting U.N. officials to warn of a human catastrophe in the enclave.
To protest the civilian casualties, Jordan, Colombia and Chile recalled their ambassadors to Israel, while Bolivia completely severed diplomatic relations with Israel.