Biden Warns Israel Not to Occupy Gaza

President Biden warned Israel in an interview aired on Sunday not to reoccupy Gaza, his first significant public effort to restrain America’s ally in the wake of the Hamas assault that killed more than 1,300 people, including at least 29 Americans.

Mr. Biden has offered staunch support for Israel since the Oct. 7 attack and refused to criticize Israel for its retaliatory siege of Gaza, the coastal enclave controlled by Hamas, even as U.N. officials have warned of a humanitarian crisis there. But in the new interview, he cautioned against a full-scale occupation of Gaza.

“I think it’d be a big mistake,” Mr. Biden told “60 Minutes” on CBS in a conversation taped on Thursday and aired on Sunday night. “Look, what happened in Gaza, in my view, is Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.” But “taking out the extremists” there, he added, “is a necessary requirement.”

The president’s comments came as he was considering whether to visit Israel in the coming days to demonstrate solidarity with Israelis still reeling from the Hamas attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended the invitation to the president over the weekend, according to an administration official, confirming a report on Israeli television, but Mr. Biden has not decided yet whether to go at this time.

In the “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. Biden did not explicitly say whether Israel should send ground forces into Gaza temporarily. But he endorsed the goal of destroying Hamas, an organization whose founding covenant embraces “killing the Jews” and wiping out Israel. The United States and European Union have designated Hamas a terrorist group.

“Israel has to respond,” Mr. Biden said. “They have to go after Hamas. Hamas is a bunch of cowards. They’re hiding behind the civilians. They put their headquarters where civilians are and buildings and the like.” But he said he was convinced that “the Israelis are going to do everything in their power to avoid the killing of innocent civilians.”

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and Hamas won elections the next year. The group seized complete control of the enclave and pushed out more moderate Palestinian leaders like those running the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Over the past 18 years, Hamas and its more radical counterparts have from time to time staged attacks on Israel, prompting several brief wars. Israeli forces, which blockade Gaza, re-entered the territory on the ground in 2009 and 2014 but opted not to stay in both cases.

Israel has amassed forces outside of Gaza in preparation for what is widely expected to be an invasion.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Many military analysts have said that a ground offensive into Gaza and the resulting urban warfare could be extremely dangerous for Israeli forces and Palestinian civilians alike. But after the deadliest attack on Israel in decades, Israeli leaders argue that they cannot simply respond with the usual airstrikes, and they have resolved to crush Hamas once and for all. Israel has mobilized 360,000 reservists and assembled considerable forces near Gaza in preparation for what is widely expected to be an invasion.

Even before any ground offensive, Israeli airstrikes and its decision to cut off food, water and other supplies have created what international aid organizations have called a humanitarian crisis. At least 2,670 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, and an additional 9,600 have been wounded.

Mr. Biden has refused to criticize Israel and said repeatedly that it had a right to defend itself from what he called “sheer evil.” In the “60 Minutes” interview, he expressed concern over the humanitarian situation and said he favored creating a safe corridor for Palestinians to flee the fighting and to allow in supplies. But he did not frame those comments as critical of Israel.

“I’m confident that Israel is going to act under” the “rules of war,” he said. “There’s standards that democratic institutions and countries go by. And so I’m confident that there’s going to be an ability for the innocents in Gaza to be able to have access to medicine and food and water.”

Asked if he agreed that Hamas must be eliminated entirely, Mr. Biden said, “Yes, I do. But there needs to be a Palestinian Authority. There needs to be a path to a Palestinian state.”

Scott Pelley, the interviewer, asked the president whether, given the wars in Ukraine and now the Middle East, along with the dysfunction in Congress, he still wanted to run for a second term.

“Yes,” Mr. Biden answered, saying he still had big projects to pursue and citing his negotiations to establish normal diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a goal that seems imperiled after the Hamas attack. “Imagine if we were able to succeed in getting the Middle East put in place where we have normalization of relations,” he said. “I think we can do that.”

And he added: “Imagine what happens if we, in fact, united all of Europe and Putin is finally put down where he cannot cause the kind of trouble he’s been causing. We have enormous opportunities, enormous opportunities to make it a better world.”

David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

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