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Providing Both Bombs and Food, Biden Puts Himself in the Middle of Gaza’s War

From the skies over Gaza these days fall American bombs and American food pallets, delivering death and life at the same time and illustrating President Biden’s elusive effort to find balance in an unbalanced Middle East war.

The president’s decision to authorize airdrops and the construction of a temporary port to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gaza has highlighted the tensions in his policy as he continues to support the provision of U.S. weaponry for Israel’s military operation against Hamas without condition.

The United States finds itself on both sides of the war in a way, arming the Israelis while trying to care for those hurt as a result. Mr. Biden has grown increasingly frustrated as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel defies his pleas to do more to protect civilians in Gaza, and the president went further in expressing that exasperation during and after his State of the Union address this past week. But Mr. Biden remains opposed to cutting off munitions or leveraging them to influence the fighting.

“You can’t have a policy of giving aid and giving Israel the weapons to bomb the food trucks at the same time,” Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, said in an interview the day after the speech. “There is inherent contradiction in that. And I think the administration needs to match the genuine empathy and moral concern that came out last night for Palestinian civilian lives with real accountability for Netanyahu and the extreme right-wing government there.”

The newly initiated American-led air and sea humanitarian campaign follows the failure to get enough supplies into Gaza by land and represents a sharp turnaround by the administration. Until now, American officials had eschewed such methods as impractical, concluding that they would not provide supplies on the same scale as a functional land route and would be complicated in many ways.

Airdrops are actually dangerous, as was made clear on Friday when at least five Palestinians were killed by falling aid packages dropped by another country partnered with the United States, and they can create chaotic, hazardous situations without a stable distribution system on the ground. The construction of a temporary floating pier will take 30 to 60 days, if not longer, according to officials, and could entail risk for those involved, although Mr. Biden has stipulated that it be constructed offshore with no Americans on the ground.

But the situation in Gaza has grown so dire — and the prospects of a temporary cease-fire more remote, after Hamas walked away from negotiations on Thursday — that the administration felt compelled to reverse course. A senior American official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said the tipping point came when more than 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured last month after a crowd gathered around a convoy of aid trucks and the Israeli military opened fire.

The official said aerial video of the episode made clear the desperation of Gazan civilians. Although Israeli officials had hoped the release of the video might exonerate their troops by showing an out-of-control mob, the official said that instead it revealed conditions severe enough to make people rush a convoy at 4:30 a.m.

Critics said the supplies now floating down by parachute hardly meet the needs and only highlight the moral conflict in Mr. Biden’s approach to the war, which started when a Hamas terrorist attack killed about 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7 and prompted an Israeli response that has killed more than 30,000 people in Gaza.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Yousef Munayyer, the head of the Palestine-Israel program at Arab Center Washington. “It’s akin to showing up at a five-alarm fire with a cup of water while giving fuel to the arsonist. The administration is trying to deal with a political problem, which is the optics of supporting this horrific war with these cosmetic measures that are aimed at defusing some voter anger.”

Israelis and their supporters reject that logic. “Why are they at cross purposes?” said Eyal Hulata, who served as national security adviser to former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “The message is — and I strongly support Biden for doing so — that he supports the elimination of Hamas, which is the source and cause of all those atrocities, while at the same time putting a lot of emphasis on assisting the civilian population of Gaza.”

“People who say that” there is a contradiction “actually don’t differentiate between Gazans and Hamas,” he added. “We do differentiate between Gazans and Hamas.”

White House officials have declined to be drawn into a public discussion of the thorny questions raised by dropping aid to the same people trying to escape strikes using American-provided arms. Privately, they say they feel damned if they do, damned if they don’t. They also note that most of the munitions provided by the United States are antiaircraft missiles or other defensive weaponry, and they express doubt that cutting off or imposing conditions on security aid would necessarily change Israeli conduct.

“We have been very, very clear about our concerns over the humanitarian situation there and how unacceptable it is that so many people are in such dire need,” John F. Kirby, a national security communications adviser to the president, told reporters from The New York Times this past week.

Mr. Biden has strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself and retaliate for the terrorist attack. He has been criticized by some in his own party for not expressing commensurate empathy for Palestinian civilians, many of them destitute and displaced amid the destruction of their coastal enclave.

During his State of the Union address on Thursday, though, he went further than before in lamenting the suffering. The president did not change policy, but his tone and emphasis represented an evolution of his public messaging.

“This war has taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined,” Mr. Biden told a national audience. “More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas. Thousands and thousands of innocents, women and children. Girls and boys also orphaned. Nearly two million more Palestinians under bombardment or displacement. Homes destroyed, neighborhoods in rubble, cities in ruin. Families without food, water, medicine. It’s heartbreaking.”

The president went even further in a post-speech conversation on the House floor with Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who pressed him to “keep pushing Netanyahu,” known by the nickname Bibi.

“I told him, Bibi — and don’t repeat this — but, ‘You and I are going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting,’” Mr. Biden explained to the senator in a comment caught on a microphone.

After an aide whispered in his ear, Mr. Biden acknowledged that he had been overheard — but seemed perfectly content to have his irritation known. “I’m on a hot mic here,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Bennet. “Good. That’s good.”

The change in tone did not go unnoticed. “There was a recognition among progressives that this represents a shift in language by the president and that language matters,” said Mr. Khanna, who exchanged texts during the speech with Arab Americans in Michigan, where anger at the president has been particularly heated. “He’s becoming more public with it.”

The friction has grown especially over humanitarian assistance. United Nations officials have warned that more than 570,000 Gazans face “catastrophic levels of deprivation and starvation” and that “if nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza.” Before the war started, Gaza relied on 500 truckloads of aid a day, but the World Food Program said it is now down to 150 and needs to double that to meet some of the area’s basic needs.

The senior American official said that Israel’s strategy during the conflict has been to allow just enough aid in to prevent starvation and nothing more. But in recent weeks, several factors have threatened to push conditions below that threshold, including Israeli protesters who have blocked aid convoys from leaving Israel on the grounds that the aid benefits Hamas and slows the release of the Israeli hostages being held. A state of virtual anarchy within Gaza has also made efficient distribution nearly impossible. One result is that malnourished babies have begun showing up at Gaza’s few functioning hospitals.

The official said that while airdropped packets of meals would most likely make only a marginal difference, Mr. Biden’s plan for a floating pier could have a substantial effect on conditions within Gaza — eventually.

So in recent days U.S. officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, have adamantly insisted that Israel facilitate more aid into the territory without further delay.

The official added that Israeli leaders might have anticipated that a deal would be reached by Ramadan, which is expected to start on Sunday, to release some hostages and pause their military campaign. That would have allowed a major influx of aid by trucks and spared Mr. Netanyahu from making hard political concessions in a domestic environment where many Israelis oppose sending more sustenance to the place from which the Oct. 7 attack originated.

But David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, said on Friday that airdrops and a pier were “last resorts” that were “expensive and risky” without solving the underlying problem.

“All of these should not divert attention from the material evidence that only a cease-fire will provide the civilian protection, aid flows, repair of infrastructure and public health measures that are so needed,” he said. “Fourth- and fifth-best solutions should not be normalized as effective alternatives to better solutions.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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