In talks with Israel’s Gantz, US VP Harris advocates for increased aid for Gaza

US Vice President Kamala Harris urged Israel to craft a “credible” humanitarian plan before conducting major military activities in Rafah during a meeting with Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz, the White House said on Monday.

Harris also pressed Israel to take more measures to get aid into Gaza, reiterating a sharp message delivered on Sunday that called conditions in the coastal enclave “inhumane.”

“The Vice President and Minister Gantz discussed the situation in Rafah and the need for a credible and implementable humanitarian plan prior to contemplating any major military operation there given the risks to civilians,” the White House said in a statement about the meeting.

Israel last month intensified its bombardment of Rafah in Gaza’s south, where about 1.5 million people are estimated to be crammed, most of them having fled their homes further north to escape Israel’s military onslaught.

Gantz, a political rival to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also scheduled to have meetings with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk on Monday and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday.

His visit comes as the White House ramps up pressure on Israel to protect civilians in Gaza during its war with Hamas.

Harris expressed her “deep concern” about humanitarian conditions in Gaza, where Palestinian authorities say more than 30,000 have been killed under a months-long assault by Israel in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, and the United Nations says many are on the brink of starvation.

She also welcomed Israel’s “constructive approach” to hostage talks, the White House said.

The meeting comes as President Joe Biden and his administration face increasing pressure from his Democratic Party to back a permanent ceasefire, and push ally and military aid recipient Israel to reduce the loss of civilian life in Gaza and allow aid to flow through in greater amounts.

Harris on Sunday said conditions in Gaza were inhumane and amounted to a “humanitarian catastrophe”, while calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Many in Biden’s party have been pushing for a ceasefire, too, and the lack of a sustained one has hurt the president politically. Biden, who is seeking reelection in November, has struggled with low approval ratings for much of his first term; his backing of military aid for Israel is unpopular with most Democrats, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows.

Increasing desperation

In a sign of increasing desperation to get aid to Gaza residents, the US military carried out its first air drop of food to Palestinians on Saturday. It plans more.

The war in Gaza began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Biden, a staunch ally of Israel, has shown increasing exasperation with the country and with Netanyahu, as the deaths in Gaza increased. Last week, he said Israel risked losing support from the rest of the world, a notion Netanyahu rejected.

The US State Department pushed back on a suggestion that Washington saw Gantz as more of a partner than Netanyahu. “We’re meeting with Benny Gantz because he’s one of three members of the war cabinet … who has a critical vote and critical stake in how this war is conducted,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Harris said on Monday she and Biden were aligned on Israeli policy after her sharp remarks.

The vice president’s meeting with Gantz is a signal that the administration is willing to work all angles on the issue within the Israeli government. Gantz leads a centrist party but joined right-wing Netanyahu’s emergency cabinet last year as a show of unity against the threat facing Israel from Hamas.

Harris had tough words for Hamas on Sunday, too, but focused most of her sharp language on Israel over the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The air drop, which the administration called a success, was the latest sign that Washington is moving beyond diplomacy with Israel, which the UN and other relief agencies complain has blocked or restricted aid. Israel denies putting any restrictions on humanitarian aid.

The administration is also considering opening a humanitarian marine corridor into Gaza, officials said on Friday.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist who ran against Biden in the 2020 Democratic primary but has supported him since, on Friday urged the administration to halt funding for Israel if it did not let more aid in.

“Israel MUST open the borders and allow the United Nations to deliver supplies in sufficient quantities. The United States should make clear that failure to do so immediately will lead to a fundamental break in the US-Israeli relationship and the immediate halt of all military aid,” he said in a statement.

The US is Israel’s most important foreign arms provider. It gives Israel $3.8 billion in military aid annually, and US leaders have proposed more in aid since the Oct. 7 attacks.

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