Biden administration officials want Israel to end its large-scale ground and air campaign in the Gaza Strip within weeks and to transition to a more targeted phase in its war against Hamas, American officials said Thursday.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, met with Israeli leaders on Thursday about the direction of the war. Mr. Sullivan did not specify a timetable, but four U.S. officials said Mr. Biden wants Israel to switch to more precise tactics in about three weeks. The officials asked for anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking.
American officials have made that timeline clear to their Israeli counterparts in recent days, the latest step in a gradual move by the administration to communicate that American patience with widespread civilian deaths is running out.
“I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives — not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful,” Mr. Biden said on Thursday after a speech on prescription drug costs at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
The new phase that the Americans envision would involve smaller groups of elite forces that would move in and out of population centers in Gaza, carrying out more precise missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels, the officials said.
The moment appeared to be the most definitive effort yet by the United States to restrain Israel in its campaign against Hamas for the attacks it led on Oct. 7, particularly as the conditions in Gaza turn catastrophic.
Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, said before meeting with Mr. Sullivan on Thursday that his country’s campaign against Hamas would last “more than several months,” a signal from Israeli officials that they intend to keep fighting until Hamas is eliminated. He said destroying Hamas, the armed group that carried out the devastating Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, was essential to his country’s security.
Mr. Gallant described Hamas as well entrenched. “They built infrastructure under the ground and above the ground, and it is not easy to destroy them,” Mr. Gallant said. “It will require a period of time — it will last more than several months.”
U.S. officials insisted that the two positions were not in direct conflict. Israel’s efforts to hunt down Hamas leaders will continue for months, even after the transition from higher to lower intensity operations takes place, they said.
During their meetings in Israel on Thursday, Israeli leaders presented Mr. Sullivan with their own timeline for waging a more targeted offensive. Their timeline was slower than the one favored by Mr. Biden and some of his advisers.
The American officials emphasized that Mr. Sullivan did not direct or order Israeli leaders to change tactics.
Still, the U.S. efforts come as differences between the United States and Israel have spilled into the open. Mr. Biden said this week that Israel was losing international support because of the “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, a much harsher assessment than his earlier public statements urging greater care to protect civilians.
The conflict has forced Mr. Biden to confront the limits of his leverage over Israel, which receives $3.8 billion a year in American security assistance.
Most American arms sales come with strings attached; Ukraine, for example, has been prohibited from firing American-made missiles into Russian territory. Mr. Biden could put a similar limit on how American bombs are used in dense civilian areas like Gaza.
But to do so could also diminish Israel’s ability to go after underground Hamas tunnels and complexes — and it would put Mr. Biden at odds with the pro-Israel lobby with which he has been sympathetic over many years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in the past, acquiesced to advice from the Biden administration — for Israel to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza and to take steps to reduce civilian casualties — after initially rejecting them outright.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office released a statement about the U.S. desire for more targeted strikes, saying only that “Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel will continue the war until we complete all of its goals.”
Mr. Sullivan also heard from Israeli officials about their concerns about a wider regional conflict, as their military trades strikes with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon across Israel’s northern border.
“The international community, and the United States in particular, must take swift action to ensure that this threat is removed,” the office of Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet and a former military chief of staff, said in a statement. The statement noted that Hezbollah and Hamas share an ally and sponsor in Iran.
Israel’s determination to carry on with its siege of Gaza comes as Philippe Lazzarini, the director of the United Nations agency that assists Palestinians, described conditions in the Palestinian territory as a “living hell.”
Fighting across Gaza appears to have intensified this week, with Israel saying Wednesday that 10 of its soldiers had been killed in a single day.
More than two months of air and artillery strikes have forced hundreds of thousands of Gazans into makeshift encampments without enough food or water, and nearly nonexistent sanitation, Mr. Lazzarini said in a speech Wednesday hours after visiting southern Gaza.
He described Gazans as “desperate, hungry people” and said the sight of a truck carrying humanitarian assistance now provokes chaos, with people stopping the convoys and eating what they can get from the trucks on the streets.
“Civil order is breaking down,” he said.
“We are still distributing whatever food we manage to bring in, but this is often as little as a bottle of water and a can of tuna per day, per family, often numbering six or seven people,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu’s government and the Biden administration have mostly sought to paper over their divides since the attack that killed at least 1,200 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel has responded with more than two months of bombardment and a ground invasion of Gaza that have killed at least 15,000 people, and likely thousands more, according to Gazan health officials, and forced most of the territory’s 2.2 million people to flee their homes.
The United States and Israel have also differed over who should control Gaza after the war. American officials have said the Palestinian Authority, which has international support, should control the enclave, while Mr. Netanyahu has appeared to rule that out for now.
Even as Mr. Biden has said Israel must do more to protect civilians, he has been steadfast in supporting its right to respond to the Oct. 7 attack.