Joe Biden will visit Israel on Wednesday to give support and address humanitarian concerns
President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 20, 2023. Photo: Avi Ohayon/ Israel Government Press Office

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden will visit Israel during wartime to hear in person about its strategy as its conflict with Hamas intensifies, and to press for humanitarian relief for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In a snap call with reporters on Monday night, John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, outlined Biden’s plan for a one-day visit on Wednesday to Tel Aviv, where he will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president will also head to Amman, Jordan, where he meet with King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

“The president will reaffirm our solidarity with Israel and he will look forward to getting an update from Israeli officials about about their strategy and the pace of their military operations and certainly expect to hear from Israel what they believe they need to continue to defend their people,” Kirby said.

Since Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,300 Israelis, wounding thousands and taking 200 captive, Biden has been unstinting in his support for Israel but has indicated concern that Israel has yet to set parameters for the counterattack, other than destroying Hamas. Israeli airstrikes have killed some 2,750 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry.

“We must not lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas’s appalling attacks, and are suffering as a result of them,” Biden said in a post Sunday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. He has also said it would be a “big mistake” for Israel to reoccupy Gaza.

It is rare for a president to visit a country at war when U.S. troops are not involved, though this will be Biden’s second such trip this year, after traveling to Ukraine in February. Rockets fired from Gaza, and to a lesser extent from Lebanon, continue to rain down in Israel. Hours before Kirby’s announcement there were sirens warning of potential attacks on Tel Aviv, and Israel is preparing a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza. But Kirby said the U.S. was assured that Biden’s security would be safeguarded.

“We are not dictating military terms and operational mandates to the Israeli military,” Kirby said. “I don’t know how much more clear I can make that. We’re not dictating terms to them. And we wouldn’t make a trip, obviously, if we did not believe that the proper security parameters would be in place.”

A military analyst told The New York Times that Israel would be unlikely to launch a ground invasion while the U.S. president was in the country.

“The ground operation is going to have lots of casualties on both sides,” Miri Eisin, a former senior military officer and the director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Israel, told the Times. “You don’t want to do that when the U.S. president is here.”

Kirby emphasized that a key component of Biden’s trip would be dedicated to getting relief to the Palestinians currently trapped within Gaza, whose borders with Israel and Egypt are shut down, and where supplies are largely cut off. The Biden Administration pressured Israel into reopening the water supply to the coastal territory.

“He will certainly reiterate that Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination,” Kirby said. “And he’ll discuss again the humanitarian needs of all civilians in Gaza.”

Kirby repeated that Biden believed Israel should, as a fellow democracy, abide by the laws of war, but he said it was not the United States’ place to press Israel on how it should conduct a military operation.

“We are not putting conditions on the military systems that we are providing to Israel,” Kirby said. “They have a right to defend themselves. They have a right to go after this terrorist threat. And we’re going to continue to do everything we can to help them do that. As I said earlier, unlike Hamas the United States and Israel are vibrant democracies believe in respect for the innocent life, we ascribe to the law of armed conflict, and that will continue to be our mutual expectations going forward.”

Separately, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said she would be leading a delegation to Israel on Tuesday. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Jewish Democrat who is the majority leader, this week led a bipartisan delegation to Israel, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also traveled to the country twice since Hamas’ invasion.

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