President Biden and his aides are using the agreement for a brief halt to hostilities in Gaza to push the Israeli government to take broad measures aimed at lessening the harm to Palestinian civilians, including setting up safe areas, allowing in much more aid and fuel, and restoring basic services such as water and electricity, U.S. officials say.
American and Qatari officials are also pushing their Israeli counterparts to consider extending the planned four-day pause in fighting beyond the weekend if there is a chance of freeing more hostages held by Hamas. Israel continues to dismiss calls for a longer-term cease-fire accompanied by political negotiations, despite growing U.S. and international concern about the humanitarian toll in Gaza.
The American officials, who say they support Israel’s right to defend itself, expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet to continue the military campaign in Gaza that began after the Hamas terrorist attacks nearly seven weeks ago, in which about 1,200 people were killed and 240 others abducted.
But the American officials say the death toll in Gaza — around 13,000, about 40 percent of them children, according to the health ministry there — is too high, and has turned many nations against Israel’s tactics and undercut public support for the country in the United States. And the U.S. officials are worried about the Israeli military’s expected offensive in southern Gaza, where many of the enclave’s two million people have sought shelter.
As it pummeled Gaza City in the north, the Israeli government told residents to go to southern Gaza, and many did so. But Israel has continued to carry out airstrikes across the south with large munitions: 1,000- to 2,000-pound bombs.
U.S. officials say they have told their Israeli counterparts that an offensive in the south with high civilian casualties would further isolate Israel in the court of global opinion, including among its Arab neighbors, who have sharply denounced the ongoing violence and called for a long-term cease-fire.
“We have made clear to them, as we have made clear publicly, that we think they should not commence with further activities in the south until they have taken the proper steps to account for the humanitarian needs there,” Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman, said at a news briefing on Tuesday.
Mr. Miller estimated that several hundred thousand people had moved from northern Gaza to the south, adding: “Before any military offensive begins there, we would want to ensure that those people are properly protected.”
American and United Nations officials have begun focusing on persuading the Israeli government to allow for the creation of safe areas in the south, which in theory would be entire neighborhoods that have been relatively undamaged by strikes so far and would be safe from attacks, U.S. officials say.
David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for humanitarian aid, is in the region and negotiating with Israeli officials over the safe areas, a U.S. official said, with the hope that the planned four-day halt to the fighting gives the Americans enough of a window to get an agreement.
In anticipation of the deal to release hostages and prisoners, the U.S. Agency for International Development positioned humanitarian aid in Egypt for swift delivery into Gaza for once the fighting pauses. U.S. officials say their top goals include maintaining electricity supplies to Gaza’s hospitals and providing fuel for water desalinization.
In an interview with National Public Radio on Wednesday, Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said the agreement should allow for more transit through multiple border crossings into Gaza that he said had been under regular shelling from Hamas.
Mr. McGurk, who had just returned from the Middle East after playing a central role in the negotiations to secure a pause in the fighting, suggested that the four-day pause might be extended, saying that “you can do more with more time.”
“And the onus for more time right now is on Hamas,” he added. “So if Hamas produces additional hostages — and they have given indications to Qatar and to the Egyptians that they will, they’re prepared to do that — the pause here will continue.”
Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said he believes that President Biden remains opposed to a cease-fire, as he has said many times, on the grounds that it would amount to a victory for Hamas.
But, he added, “the dynamic that they’ve put in play here is interesting. It’s not that they expect the pause will turn into a cease-fire” lasting weeks or longer.
“It’s that the structure of the pause is such that if Hamas wants to continue to avoid more Israeli military action, they’re going to have to pay for it in terms of releasing more hostages — but getting more Palestinian prisoners in return,” he said.
Officials in the region expect intensive diplomacy to continue, with potential visits in the near future by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other senior U.S. officials.