When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken lamented the civilian death toll in Gaza on Friday, it marked a subtle but notable shift in US language towards the Israeli government.
The Biden administration has for weeks supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military offensive following the brutal attacks by Hamas, but a rising death toll in the besieged enclave, huge pro-Palestinian protests around the globe and growing discomfort in the White House have put significant strain on the U.S. attitude.
“Too many Palestinians have been killed. Too many have suffered in recent weeks, said the top US diplomat in New Delhi. “We want to do everything we can to prevent harm to them and to maximize the help that comes to them.”
“To that end, we will continue to discuss with Israel the concrete steps to be taken to advance these goals,” Blinken added.
Administration officials claim they have been successful in some areas as they work to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The White House said on Thursday that Israel had agreed to go ahead with daily four-hour pauses in military operations in areas of northern Gaza.
But constant pressure from the Biden administration on Israel to refine its war plans and define its goals in Gaza has not provided the degree of clarity many US officials want.
To this point, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, citing sources in the Hamas-controlled area.
The fierce military operation shows no signs of letting up. On Friday, Israeli tanks surrounded a hospital in Gaza, its director told CNN, as the territory’s largest health facility came under a reported “bombardment.”
Mustafa al-Kahlout, who heads Al Nasr Hospital and Al Rantisi Pediatric Hospital in northern Gaza, told CNN they were surrounded and asked the Red Cross to help with an evacuation. “We are completely surrounded, there are tanks outside the hospital and we cannot leave,” al-Kahlout said.
The IDF has said that Hamas is embedding itself in civilian infrastructure and that it will attack Hamas “where necessary.” CNN cannot confirm these claims.
Netanyahu insisted on Thursday that there would be “no ceasefire” without the release of hostages held by Hamas.
A growing number of Israelis share that view, saying their country should immediately begin talks with Hamas over the release of hostages held in Gaza – but should continue to fight while they negotiate, a survey published Friday suggests.
Nearly four in 10 Israelis (38%) expressed their opinion in a survey by the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. That’s up from 32% who said Israel should negotiate while fighting when the survey was last conducted about two weeks earlier.
“The fighting continues and there will be no ceasefire without the release of our hostages,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
But so far a broader deal to free the hostages has proved elusive, and frustration with the government’s response is growing.
On Friday, CNN reported that the parties involved in the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of the hostages are working toward an agreement that would involve a sustained, days-long pause in the fighting in exchange for a large group hostages will be freed, a senior US official is familiar with. with the negotiations said.
If a deal was struck, the hostages would leave Gaza in stages on a rolling basis – with priority given to extra vulnerable groups such as children and women – in a process expected to take several days, the official said.
Still, they repeatedly warned that the talks could stall or deteriorate at any moment: “It’s been close before. There’s no certainty at all.”
Meanwhile, major world cities including London, Istanbul, New York, Baghdad and Rome have seen their centers filled with pro-Palestinian protesters calling for a ceasefire, with more protests planned this weekend.
Video from a demonstration in Washington DC last weekend showed a huge crowd, many of them wearing the kaffiyeh – a patterned headscarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian identity – and carrying Palestinian flags. “Stop the massacre” and “Let Gaza live” were on signs among the audience.
Many protesters addressed Biden directly, leading chants of “Biden, Biden, you can’t hide, we’re charging you with genocide” and “no truce, no votes.”
After Biden was confronted by a protester calling for a cease-fire at a private fundraiser last week, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that “the president understands that there are strong emotions and feelings here, around, all over line – and in here the administration and the federal government, that is certainly the case as well.”
“We’ve been engaging with — with partners and organizations and experts and analysts and people with different perspectives, to listen to their concerns, make sure we understand them as we develop policy,” Kirby said.
Concerns about the widening of the conflict and the potential for further diplomatic fallout abroad also remain top of mind in the United States.
The Biden administration has received stark warnings from US diplomats in the Arab world that its strong support for Israel’s military campaign is “losing us Arab publics for a generation,” according to a diplomatic cable obtained by CNN.
US support for Israel’s actions is seen, the cable warns, “as material and moral culpability in what it considers to be possible war crimes.”
And in the Middle East, Iranian proxy groups have stepped up their attacks on US forces and assets in the area in recent weeks following Hamas attacks on Israel.
U.S. and coalition bases in Iraq and Syria have been attacked at least 40 times since Oct. 17, leaving several U.S. soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and other injuries, all of which have been minor, officials said.
Two US airstrikes aimed at deterring the attacks have not stopped the militias.
On Thursday, a US official told CNN that US and coalition forces have been attacked at least four more times since the latest US strike in eastern Syria on Wednesday.
Blinken reiterated Friday that the United States “will continue to focus relentlessly on getting our hostages home” and preventing the conflict from expanding.
Speaking in India on Friday, Blinken insisted that “some progress has been made” in the week since he met in Tel Aviv with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, but “this is a process and it doesn’t always turn on the light switch.”
Still, the public message — from Blinken and other U.S. officials — has continued to emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself and reject any calls for a cease-fire.
There are public and private acknowledgments from the administration that the fighting cannot be stopped right now, as the next phase of the offensive unfolds.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Blinken tried to make that position clear, even though the pressure continues to increase at home and abroad.
“Those calling for an immediate ceasefire have an obligation to explain how to deal with the unacceptable outcome that would likely bring.”
CNNs Jennifer Hansler, Kevin Liptak, MJ Lee and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.
This story has been updated with further developments.