Kamala Harris calls for 6-week ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza and places onus on Israel to deliver aid
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks on the 59th commemoration of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ Selma bridge crossing on March 3, 2024 in Selma, Alabama. In her remarks Harris called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza but reiterated that Israel has “a right to defend itself”. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

By Ron Kampeas
March 5, 2024

(JTA) — Vice President Kamala Harris called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and placed most of the onus on Israel for a shortfall in humanitarian aid entering the enclave.  

The call for a cessation of fighting was not actually a change in the U.S. position on the war. In her speech, at a civil rights-focused event on Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama, Harris made clear that she was not referring to a permanent ceasefire, which progressive activists have advocated for months. 

Rather, she was voicing support for the current Israeli-backed proposal, via negotiations, for a six-week truce. Harris placed the onus on Hamas to accept the terms of the deal, which would see the release of some of the Israeli hostages it is holding. 

“Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate ceasefire for at least the next six weeks, which is what is currently on the table,” Harris said. “Hamas claims it wants a ceasefire. Well, there is a deal on the table. And as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal.”

But Harris’ use of the term “immediate ceasefire” marked a shift of sorts in the Biden administration’s language. Last week, President Joe Biden spoke of a “temporary ceasefire,” and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told the New Yorker, “We still don’t support a general ceasefire that would leave Hamas in charge. What we do support is a temporary ceasefire, to get these hostages out and get the aid in.”

The administration has thus far staunchly supported the war, which began when Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 and taking more than 250 hostages. But recently, the Biden administration has expressed increasing frustration with Israel. Biden has said that Israel’s conduct in Gaza was “over the top” and has pressed Israel to allow in more humanitarian aid. 

Increasing U.S. disapproval of Israel is also evident in polling. Gallup reported on Monday that Israel’s favorability among Americans had dropped from 68% a year ago to 58% today, which the polling agency called “the lowest favorable rating for Israel in over two decades.” The phone poll of more than 1,000 adults, taken in February, has a margin of error of 4%.

Harris’ speech — at an event in Birmingham marking the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge violently repressed peaceful civil rights marchers — came following a campaign last week to protest Biden’s Israel police got 100,000 voters to vote “uncommitted” in the Michigan Democratic presidential primary

The vice president devoted half of her remarks to the war, and demanded that Israel “do more to significantly increase the flow of aid” to Gaza, which aid groups say is at risk of mass famine due to the lack of food and other critical supplies. 

Calls for aid gained more urgency last week after dozens died in a rush on an aid convoy, which Hamas blamed on Israeli gunfire. Israel said its troops fired minimal warning shots and that the deaths were due to a stampede. Top U.S. officials have until now blamed multiple factors for the failure to deliver aid, citing the chaos of war, Hamas’s theft of the aid and ineffective international agencies, as well as Israeli reluctance to fully open crossings. 

“No excuses,” Harris said. “They must open new border crossings. They must not impose any unnecessary restrictions on the delivery of aid. They must ensure humanitarian personnel, sites, and convoys are not targeted. And they must work to restore basic services and promote order in Gaza so more food, water, and fuel can reach those in need.”

Harris’ tone and the setting — the nation’s first Black vice president speaking against the background of Civil Rights iconography — left an unmistakable message: Israel was losing a key bloc of the Democratic Party — minorities who, polls show, are increasingly uncomfortable with how it is conducting the war, which has so far killed 30,000 Palestinians according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

As if to emphasize the subtext in Harri’s message, the crowd whooped and cheered when Harris said Israel must do more to deliver aid, and when she used the word “ceasefire.” 

Harris met on Monday with Benny Gantz, the erstwhile centrist opposition leader who is part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet and who is outpolling Netanyahu by far in opinion surveys. Israeli media has reported that Netanyahu is furious with Gantz for taking the trip, and has instructed the Israeli Embassy in Washington not to assist Gantz.

Gantz, a former Israeli military chief and defense minister, is also meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Gantz’s first meeting Sunday was with the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby. “I conveyed to the Board my profound appreciation for their important work, particularly since October 7th, in strengthening the alliance between Israel and the United States and combating distressing levels of antisemitism across America,” Gantz wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

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