Israel will implement four-hour pauses in fighting in parts of the northern Gaza Strip each day, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday.
Already, tens of thousands of people have fled from northern Gaza to the south in recent days as Israeli forces held brief battle pauses amid their bombardment of the north, where humanitarian conditions have continued to worsen.
Going forward, an announcement will be made three hours before each pause and a second route along a coastal road will allow thousands more civilians to reach southern Gaza, Kirby said. Israeli officials told the U.S. there will be no operations in designated areas during those times, he told reporters in a briefing.
His comments came after the U.S. was said to be discussing with Israel and Qatar a possible proposal for a dayslong pause in the fighting, according to two foreign diplomats and a U.S. official.
Israeli officials have said that the brief suspensions in fighting initiated in recent days have been to allow Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to move south.
When asked how the pauses announced Thursday are different from the ones implemented by Israel, a White House official said they were a formalization and expansion of what Israel has been doing for the last several days.
“Today, the IDF is implementing these localized tactical humanitarian pauses on a daily basis, and they’re formalizing that they’re going to be carried out at predetermined times and locations which will be communicated in advance,” the official said.
The official, who said the expansion aspect consists of going from one humanitarian corridor a day to two, noted that Israel still reserves the right to respond if Hamas attacks or launches hostile operations during a pause.
Israel’s military, however, has been downplaying the White House announcement, saying that the pauses are very narrow — neighborhood by neighborhood — and that there’s no commitment to stop attacks in Gaza altogether for any duration of time.
Shortly after Kirby’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that the fighting was continuing “and there will be no cease-fire without the release of our hostages.”
In a briefing on Thursday, IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari reiterated that, “the fighting continues,” despite the “local tactical pauses.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly said Hamas would need to release all of the 240 or so people taken hostage during the group’s attack on Oct. 7 before it would agree to a cease-fire.
Hostages were not specifically mentioned in the explanation of the pauses announced Thursday. When asked if there would be longer pauses to get hostages out, Kirby said: “We continue to work with our partners in the region to get those hostages out. We think that pauses can be useful in the safe passage for hostages, so should a release be secured.”
Dov Waxman, director of UCLA’s Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, said the development appeared to signal the Israeli government was “gradually moving closer to what the Biden administration has been seeking.”
As NBC News has previously reported, there were mounting concerns among top Biden administration officials over how Israel is carrying out the war, with its offensive in Gaza so far seeing more than 10,500 people killed in the enclave.
“I think clearly the Israelis have recognized the concerns of the Biden administration and obviously they value greatly the administration’s, you know, continued support for Israel,” Waxman said.
Holding short pauses in the fighting, he said, is likely a way of not only assuaging the United States’ concerns, but also of testing the waters on how Hamas will react to the short pauses. “If they do this, how will Hamas react? Is it going to undermine the battle on the ground?” he said.
Colonel Elad Goren, Head of the Civil Department of COGAT, Israel’s military liaison with the Palestinians, told NBC News earlier this week that Israeli forces needed to “limit the times” for pauses in fighting because whenever troops are “not maneuvering they are targets for Hamas terrorists.”
“So, we are limiting those hours,” he said. “If there is a need to extend it, we will extend it.”
In recent days, tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians have fled from northern Gaza as Israel said its troops reached the “heart” of Gaza City. In a briefing Wednesday, Hagari estimated that around 50,000 Palestinians had moved south that day after the IDF said it had opened humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee.
The corridors were opened for just a handful of hours per day over the past several days, with many fleeing Israel’s relentless bombardment, as well as increasingly dire humanitarian conditions, with food, water and other vital resources dwindling.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said on Wednesday that the “unfolding catastrophe in Gaza makes the need for a humanitarian cease-fire more urgent with every passing hour,” as he stressed that the protection of civilians should be the priority.
“Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children,” he said. “Hundreds of girls and boys are reportedly being killed or injured every day.”
Stephen Zunes, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of San Francisco, said the White House’s announcement was good news for Palestinian civilians, but not a solution to the vast suffering.
“Any pause in the fighting will ease the incredible humanitarian crisis that’s been going on,” he said. “It will allow Palestinian civilians to flee combat zones. The problem though is virtually that the entire Gaza Strip is a combat zone.”
“Certainly, the longer the cease-fires the better,” he said, but “even temporary ones are better than none.”
Earlier on Thursday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog rejected reports that a deal for a longer pause in fighting might be close at hand, telling NBC News that Israel had yet to receive a substantial offer from Hamas on a deal to see hostages freed.
Source: NBC News