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Benjamin Netanyahu and Joe Biden are expected to speak today (file photo) Alamy Stock Photo

Biden urges 'immediate ceasefire' in first call with Netanyahu since strike on aid workers

The US President and the Israeli Prime Minister will hold a phone call later today.


US PRESIDENT JOE Biden has told Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that America’s continued support depends on Israeli actions to protect Gaza civilians, conditioning aid as he urged an “immediate ceasefire.”

In their first phone call since an Israeli strike on a humanitarian convoy killed seven aid workers in Gaza, Biden urged Netanyahu to “announce and implement a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety” of aid workers.

Biden “made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps,” the White House readout of the call went on.

The conversation also saw Biden tell Netanyahu that an “immediate ceasefire is essential” to stabilize the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians, and that Israel needed to “conclude a deal without delay” to bring hostages home.

However, Biden said that the US “strongly supports” Israel in the face of threats from Iran, following an Israeli strike on a consulate in Damascus on Monday night that killed three senior officials.

The call came after Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken” by the deadly strike.

Although there have been many examples of Biden applying rhetorical pressure to Israel while at the same time consistently supplying the country with arms.  

The employees of US-based World Central Kitchen were distributing desperately needed food to a population on the verge of famine.

Palestinian Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha (25), Australian Lalzawmi (Zomi) Frankcom (43), Pole Damian Sobol (35), American-Canadian Jacob Flickinger (33), and Brits John Chapman (57), James (Jim) Henderson (33) and James Kirby (47) were all killed in the strike.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also “expressed his outrage” at the aid workers’ killings in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant, the Pentagon said.

Austin stressed the need to protect aid workers and civilians and for “a rapid increase of aid” into Gaza, “particularly to communities in northern Gaza that are at risk of famine”.

Israel has taken responsibility for the strike on the aid workers, which it called a mistake, and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant instructed the armed forces to “maintain an open and transparent line of communication” with international organisations conducting relief work.

But Biden has emphasised the attack – which hit WCK-branded vehicles after the organisation said it had coordinated movements with Israeli forces – was not a “stand-alone incident”.

MixCollage-03-Apr-2024-01-21-PM-2357 (from top left) Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha (25), Lalzawmi (Zomi) Frankcom (43), Damian Soból (35), Jacob Flickinger (33), John Chapman (57), James (Jim) Henderson (33), and James Kirby (47), who were killed in the Israeli air strike. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

At least 196 aid workers have been killed in Gaza in the almost six-month-old war, nearly three times the toll inflicted by any other single conflict in a year, according to a UN coordinator.

US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters the strike was “emblematic of a larger problem and evidence of why distribution of aid in Gaza has been so challenging”.

But the White House said that Biden continued to support Israel’s “right to defend itself” and there were no plans to curb arms deliveries to the key US ally.

Monday’s deaths have thrown into question how to safely continue deliveries as the territory faces a deepening hunger crisis, with children reportedly dying of starvation.

WCK, which called the strike “targeted”, suspended its operations in the region and sent ships laden with hundreds of tonnes of undelivered supplies back to their Mediterranean port.

Other groups have since curtailed or reassessed their operations, with the UN on Tuesday pausing nighttime movement for the “evaluation of the security issues”.

“Humanitarian aid organizations are unable to carry out their work safely,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross.

International investigation

Meanwhile, the World Central Kitchen has called for an “independent investigation into the IDF strikes that killed seven members” of its team.

The charity’s chief executive officer Erin Gore and executive co-chairman/treasurer Javier Garcia said in a joint statement: “On April 1, 2024, the Israeli Defence Forces killed seven humanitarian aid workers employed by World Central Kitchen (WCK), an internationally recognized humanitarian organization.

This was a military attack that involved multiple strikes and targeted three WCK vehicles.

“All three vehicles were carrying civilians; they were marked as WCK vehicles; and their movements were in full compliance with Israeli authorities, who were aware of their itinerary, route, and humanitarian mission.”

The statement asked the governments of Australia, Canada, the United States, Poland, and the United Kingdom to join them in a third-party investigation into the attacks and “whether they were carried out intentionally or otherwise violated international law”.

The charity said it has asked the Israeli government to immediately keep all documents, communications, video and audio recordings relevant to the strikes.

“An independent investigation is the only way to determine the truth of what happened, ensure transparency and accountability for those responsible, and prevent future attacks on humanitarian aid workers,” the statement added.

Austin said the aid charity “tragedy reinforced the expressed concern over a potential Israeli military operation in Rafah, specifically focusing on the need to ensure the evacuation of Palestinian civilians and the flow of humanitarian aid”.

gaza-2nd-april-2024-a-damaged-vehicle-is-seen-after-israeli-strikes-in-central-gaza-strip-city-of-deir-el-balah-on-april-2-2024-israel-on-tuesday-assumed-responsibility-for-the-killing-of-seven One of the vehicles damaged after Israeli strikes in central Gaza Strip city of Deir el-Balah. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Talks for a ceasefire and hostage release deal have stalled, with both sides blaming each other.

An informed source within Hamas told AFP that “there is nothing new in the latest negotiating round, and the occupation (Israel) continues to be stubborn, procrastinate and disrupt any ceasefire agreement”.

‘Hardship to secure food’

The threat to Gaza’s aid lifeline comes as all of its 2.4 million people are already struggling to get enough to eat, with famine projected to soon hit the north.

In Gaza City, Palestinians sleeping overnight near an aid delivery spot hoped to secure a bag of flour.

“We wait all night for this flour. We sleep on the streets, in the cold, on the sand, enduring hardship to secure food for our families, especially our young children,” one man told AFP on Wednesday.

“I don’t know what else to do or how our lives have come to this.”

a-ship-belonging-to-the-open-arms-aid-group-and-is-one-of-three-ships-loaded-with-canned-food-destined-to-gaza-has-returned-to-the-cypriot-port-of-larnaca-cyprus-wednesday-april-3-2024-cyprus-w A ship belonging to the Open Arms aid group, one of three ships loaded with canned food destined for Gaza, has returned to the Cypriot port of Larnaca. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Since the 7 October Hamas attacks that started the current conflict, Israel has heavily restricted aid deliveries to the already blockaded territory, with the number of trucks dwindling to a small trickle.

Last week, Israel told the UN agency for Palestinian refugees its convoys would no longer be allowed in the north, where people have been consuming fewer than 245 calories per day on average, charity Oxfam said Wednesday.

“The miniscule amount of food represents less than 12% of the recommended daily 2,100 calorie intake needed per person,” it said in a statement.

To try to maintain the humanitarian lifeline, foreign powers have increased aid airdrops into Gaza, while the World Central Kitchen was involved in establishing a maritime route.

Biden has instructed the US military to build a floating pier to unload supplies from the sea, with State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller vowing Monday’s strike would not deter that plan.

“It will not affect our efforts to stand up the pier to deliver aid through sea,” he told reporters.

Tomorrow, the UN Human Rights Council will consider a draft resolution calling for an arms embargo on Israel and condemning “the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”.

The draft, which is backed by 18 states, will need 24 votes for a majority on the 47-country council, but it could possibly pass with fewer if there are abstentions.

Israel has long accused the Human Rights Council of bias.

© AFP 2024, with reporting from Jane Moore