U.S. stresses support for Israel as 1 million residents of North Gaza ordered to evacuate

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to Israel, the New York Democrat’s office said Friday as Israel ordered around 1 million people to leave the northern half of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip amid war with the militant group.

The visit by Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the United States, comes as civilian casualties rise on both sides of the conflict. Schumer and officials in President Joe Biden’s administration continued to pledge unconditional support for Israel, even as concerns over civilian casualties grew.

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Schumer will travel to Israel this weekend to show “unwavering support” for the Middle East ally, a spokesperson said in a written statement.

“Leader Schumer will meet with the new unity government including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, as well as President Isaac Herzog,” the spokesperson wrote. “Sen. Schumer will discuss what resources the United States can provide to support Israel on all fronts.”

Spokespeople for Schumer did not say which other senators would be on the trip.

Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst also led a congressional delegation to the region this week, meeting with Israeli leaders to affirm U.S. support following Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7.

“I was proud to bring bipartisan support to Israel in the face of aggression,” Ernst said in a Wednesday news release.

Four U.S. House members, Republicans Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa and Darrell Issa of California and Democrats Donald Norcross of New Jersey and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, were on the trip with Ernst, according to the release.

Safe passage from Gaza not yet secured

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday that the Biden administration continues to “provide support to our strongest ally in the Middle East,” Israel. Kirby said he was not aware of any consultation between the administration and Israeli leaders before the evacuation order.

U.S. officials continue to work with Israel and neighboring Egypt on creating safe passages for civilians to take out of Gaza, but have not yet established them, Kirby said Friday, repeating a line he’s used throughout the week.

Despite safe passages not being secured, Israel’s military warned people to leave North Gaza within 24 hours, a situation the United Nations said will have “devastating” consequences.

“The United Nations considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences,” Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, said in a release late Thursday.

News media have reported hundreds of civilian deaths from Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which began after the militant group Hamas launched a brutal surprise attack Oct. 7, estimated to be the deadliest day in Israel’s history. More than 1,000 Israelis, most of them civilians, have died in the conflict so far.

The Biden administration is having ongoing conversations with Israeli leaders about adhering to international laws of war, Kirby said, declining a reporter’s invitation to condemn Israel for civilian deaths in Gaza.

“We don’t want to see any more innocent lives lost or suffered as a result of the conflict,” he said. “We want to make sure humanitarian assistance continues to flow into Gaza and for the innocent Palestinian people that are there. We routinely — and will continue to — talk to our Israeli counterparts about issues regarding the law of armed conflict and respect for innocent human life.”

Kirby also declined to answer if the U.S. has any parameters for an Israeli counteroffensive.

He noted Hamas was the aggressor in the war and has not shown any regard for civilian lives, even in Gaza, while Israel has. Hamas uses Palestinian people in the territory as “human shields,” he said, and puts civilian assets in danger by headquartering in schools and hospitals, he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to reporters in Tel Aviv on Friday, alongside Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and pledged “ironclad support” for Israel.

“I am here in person to make something crystal-clear: America’s support for Israel is ironclad,” Austin said.

Asked about the difficulty of the evacuation order, Gallant said it was essential to avoid civilian casualties as Israel retaliates against Hamas, which he characterized as similar in its brutality to the terror group ISIS.

“The camouflage of the terrorists is the civil population,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the Pentagon. “Therefore, we need to separate them. So those who want to save their life, please go south. We are going to destroy Hamas infrastructures, Hamas headquarters, Hamas military establishment, and take these phenomena out of Gaza and out of the Earth. They cannot live among human civilized people.”

Israel does not target civilians, he added.

Biden speaks with families

No new American deaths were reported in the conflict since Thursday, keeping the total at 27, with 14 still unaccounted for, Kirby said.

Biden spoke with family members of some of the Americans who are unaccounted for, Kirby said.

The administration is “also focused on ensuring the safety of communities here at home,” Kirby said. Biden and senior officials have met with Jewish and Muslim community leaders across the country this week “who fear outbreaks of violence against them as a result of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.”

Domestic intelligence agencies had no credible threats of violence in the U.S., Kirby said.

Charter flights begin

As Kirby briefed reporters shortly after noon Eastern Friday, he said the first State Department charter flight out of Europe was en route to a European destination he declined to name.

With commercial air travel out of Israel largely suspended, including by all major U.S. airlines, the State Department will continue to organize flights out of the region for U.S. citizens and their immediate families.

Wasserman Schultz and 31 other House Democrats wrote a letter to U.S. carriers Friday asking them to resume flights out of Israel.

The lawmakers noted several difficulties would complicate airline operations, but said the federal government could help.

“Some of these barriers may seem too complex or too difficult, but as long as there are Americans in need and a way to operate safely – we must try,” they wrote.

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