President Joe Biden and his top national security officials are increasingly confronting questions about Israel’s commitment to minimizing civilian deaths and how scenes from Gaza could affect his domestic political standing.
Even some allies of the administration are worried that defending Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas terror attacks could become an untenable position for the White House. A massive blast that ripped through Jabalya refugee camp on Tuesday vividly captured the tightrope that the Biden administration is trying to walk: Maintaining in public that Israel is trying to contain Palestinian civilian casualties, even as bloody scenes of destruction pour out of Gaza, fueling public outrage and calls for a ceasefire.
The airstrike, which left catastrophic damage and killed a large number of people, has raised new questions about how effective Biden and his top officials have been in convincing their Israeli counterparts to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians. It is also intensifying concerns within the administration that the mounting civilian death toll could further erode international support for Israel, isolating the country at a moment of deep regional instability.
The wide-scale casualties in Gaza are weighing heavily on senior US officials, who are ratcheting up the pressure – both in private and in public – on the Israelis to contain civilian deaths. That pressure has originated from the president on down: Concerns about the safety of Palestinian civilians was front and center yet again when Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone on Sunday.
The rapidly mounting civilian death toll in Gaza has come as a surprise to some American officials, who recognize each instance of humanitarian carnage will be accompanied by more pressure to denounce Israel’s tactics, a line the White House has so far refused to cross.
“They’ve got a huge amount of anxiety about innocent lives being killed,” one source in close contact with Biden’s national security team said. “They obviously care deeply about that. … There is not a lack of empathy.”
But demonstrating that empathy has, so far, continued to be paired with a staunch defense of Israel and its right to defend itself. At Tuesday’s White House press briefing, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby acknowledged that Israeli forces may, at times, “fail to meet their own expectations about killing civilians.”
When pressed if the administration would go as far as to say that Israel is failing to minimize civilian casualties, Kirby insisted: “It’s obvious to us that they are trying to minimize [civilian casualties].”
To many, that statement did not appear to square with Israel’s operation on Tuesday in northern Gaza, which Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Richard Hecht said had successfully killed a senior Hamas commander. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Hecht said the target of the Israeli airstrike had been “hiding, as they do, behind civilians.”
When Blitzer reminded Hecht that there were many innocent civilians in that refugee camp, Hecht responded: “This is the tragedy of war, Wolf.” He added that Israeli officials had been urging civilians to “please move south.”
Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International who formerly worked in the Obama administration at USAID, said Tuesday that the attack on Jabalya refugee camp was a “clear-cut war crime.”
“It shows wanton disregard for the legal obligation to minimize civilian harm in targeting military objectives. It is the latest of many such attacks by the IDF,” Konyndyk said on X. “This in turn underscores that Netanyahu is making a mockery of Biden’s repeated pleas to follow the laws of war – without any acknowledgement of that reality by the US.”
In some areas, the Biden administration has successfully used its leverage to pressure Israel to ease humanitarian suffering in Gaza. After Biden told Netanyahu on Sunday that aid to the strip must “immediately and significantly increase,” Israeli officials said the number of trucks crossing from Egypt would eventually increase to 100 per day.
And pressure from the United States led to the restoration of internet and cell phone connectivity in Gaza after it was severed at the start of Israel’s escalation.
Elsewhere, however, American entreaties have gone unanswered. Israel appears to have rejected, for now, the White House’s call for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting that would allow for aid to go in and hostages to come out.
And the intentional targeting of a refugee camp would appear, on its face, to spurn calls from the United States to tailor operations to protect civilian lives.
“Hamas is making life extremely difficult for Israel by taking civilians as human shields and by putting their rocket infrastructure and terrorist infrastructure among civilians,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday on CNN. “That creates an added burden for Israel, but it does not lessen Israel’s responsibility, under international humanitarian law, to distinguish between terrorists and civilians and to protect the lives of innocent people.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was among a very small group of Muslim-American leaders who met Biden at the White House last week, told CNN it would be helpful for the president to speak out more forcefully about the imperative of protecting civilians in Gaza. “Maybe it would help to reduce the likelihood” of Israeli strikes like the one that destroyed part of the Jabalia refugee camp, he said.
Ellison, who in 2006 was the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, said it was clear from his interaction with the president last week that Biden cared deeply about preventing civilian casualties.
“It was clear to me he cares a lot. It was clear to me he is using the influence he has to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” Ellison said of his meeting with the president last week.
On Wednesday, crowds began to gather at the Rafah crossing amid reports that a Qatar-mediated deal to release foreign nationals had been agreed, according to multiple sources. But Americans are not believed to be among the first batch of foreign nationals in Gaza who may be able to exit through the border crossing, a Western official told CNN. US citizens are expected to begin departing Gaza as soon as Thursday, according to internal US government correspondence obtained by CNN.
Already, Biden had been walking a tightrope in his support for Israel following the Hamas terror attacks on October 7. The stance has caused rifts within his Democratic Party and put the United States at odds with many of its traditional allies in Europe.
Biden has resisted calls for a ceasefire, including at the United Nations, and insists Israel has a “responsibility” to defend its citizens from terrorism. Neither he nor anyone else in the administration has come close to criticizing how Israel is conducting its offensive.
At a fundraiser in Minneapolis on Wednesday night, Biden was interrupted by a protester calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. As Biden was speaking, an audience member shouted: “As a rabbi I need you to call for a ceasefire right now,” according to reporters inside the room.
Biden responding by saying he was supportive of a humanitarian pause to allow for the release of hostages held in Gaza, and touted the work that he had done in pushing for humanitarian relief for Palestinians.
“I understand the emotion,” Biden said as he continued his remarks after the protester was led out of the room.
Biden’s aides believe the administration’s messages of warning to Israel are more effectively delivered in private and insist there have been far tougher conversations behind the scenes than the public rhetoric might indicate.
That included advice from top American military officials to delay a ground invasion, in part to allow for more time to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas. It also included attempts by US officials to interrogate Israel’s war plans, which appeared not fully developed to some.
Underpinning many of the conversations, however, were intensifying warnings about the ramifications of a mounting civilian death toll, which Biden and his team fear could lead to global backlash – including inside the United States.
The anger was apparent Tuesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill featuring Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. In scenes reminiscent of the Iraq war era, protesters interrupted their testimony one by one, loudly calling for a ceasefire and an end to the civilian deaths in Gaza.
There is recognition, one source familiar with the administration’s thinking said, that eventually “public opinion is going to change on Israel.”
That anticipation, the source added, puts additional pressure on US officials to continue reminding Americans of Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel that set off the Israel-Hamas war: “Hamas did a massive terrorist attack for the sole purpose of provoking Israel to do exactly what they’re doing now.”
In private, and increasingly in public, Biden has offered warnings to Israel about adhering to international humanitarian law by protecting civilian lives. In phone calls and during his in-person meeting with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv earlier this month, Biden has offered stark warnings about the potential that support for Israel could erode if the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens.
“My point to everyone is: Look, if you have an opportunity to alleviate the pain, you should do it. Period. And if you don’t, you’re going to lose credibility worldwide. And I think everyone understands that,” Biden told reporters as he returned home from his brief trip to Israel on October 18.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.