As Israel escalates its attacks on Gaza, the State Department is discouraging diplomats working on Middle East issues from making public statements suggesting the US wants to see less violence, according to internal emails viewed by HuffPost.
In messages circulated on Friday, State Department staff wrote that high-level officials do not want press materials to include three specific phrases: “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm”.
The revelation provides a stunning signal about the Biden administration’s reluctance to push for Israeli restraint as the close U.S. partner expands the offensive it launched after Hamas ― which rules Gaza ― attacked Israeli communities on October 7.
The emails were sent hours after Israel told more than 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza that they should leave their homes and shelters ahead of an expected ground invasion of the region. On Thursday, the United Nations said Israel had given Gazans a 24-hour deadline to move to the south of the strip, and warned that it would be “impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences”.
Asked about Israel’s evacuation order on Friday, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby declined to reject or endorse it, calling it “a tall order”.
“We’re going to be careful not to get into armchair quarterbacking the tactics on the ground by the [Israel Defense Forces],” Kirby said. “What I can tell you is we understand what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to move civilians out of harm’s way and giving them fair warning.”
When reached for comment on the directive, a State Department official said they would not comment on internal communications.
US officials have said they expect Israel to abide by the laws of war in its operation against Hamas. But they have avoided discussion of a ceasefire, even as aid groups and some analysts have suggested that may be essential to allow civilians to flee Gaza and allow vital supplies to enter the area after Israel cut off electricity and water that the strip usually relies on. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken deleted and replaced a post on X, the former Twitter, in which he mentioned Turkey’s calls for a ceasefire.
Israel’s operation in Gaza has killed nearly 1,800 people so far, the Gazan Health Ministry said on Friday, including 583 children and 351 women. US officials believe there are 500 to 600 American citizens in the area. Israel has repeatedly bombed the exit point from Gaza that does not lead into its territory.
Last weekend’s Hamas-led attack, and Palestinian militants’ rocket fire since then, have killed a combined 1,300 Israelis, Israel said on Thursday.
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly pledged to support Israel as it seeks to avenge the unprecedented Hamas assault. Yet as Israel’s biggest source of diplomatic and military support, the US has significant leverage in the matter of how the country chooses to seek retribution ― and whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to limit the civilian toll of his response.
Biden allies may press the president and his team to issue stronger calls for Netanyahu to prioritise humanitarian concerns. On Friday, Representative Sara Jacobs ― a California Democrat who serves on the House foreign affairs and armed services committees ― urged Israel to reconsider its Gaza evacuation order.
“My family is still in Israel so I can only imagine the pain and anger the families of the hostages are feeling right now and understand the Israeli government’s urgency in holding Hamas responsible,” Jacobs said in a statement. “I also share the concerns of the UN ... Due to telecommunications and electricity outages, many civilians in Gaza cannot receive the evacuation notice, let alone evacuate quickly and safely. The short timeline of the evacuation notice does not provide the civilian population of over 1 million people enough time to evacuate, nor does it provide enough time for humanitarian organizations to ensure southern Gaza can receive an additional 1 million people.”
“Preserving our moral authority and protecting innocent lives is the right thing to do, and is also important for the long-term safety and security of Israel,” Jacobs continued.
US officials often argue that private persuasion is more effective on partners like the Israelis than public pressure. They are particularly sensitive about being seen as insufficiently supportive of Israel given the country’s heavy losses and ongoing anxiety about the more than 100 Israelis kidnapped by Palestinian militants, as well as Republican efforts to depict Biden as failing a key American friend.
Blinken visited Israel on Thursday and is also visiting some of the most influential Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, which are historically central to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
On Friday, Blinken met with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the occupied West Bank and contributes to governance in Gaza but has longstanding differences with Hamas.
Blinken “detailed US efforts to coordinate with partners to prevent the conflict from widening”, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters.
“The Secretary extended his condolences to the families of Palestinian civilian victims of this conflict, and reiterated that Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to dignity, freedom, justice, and self-determination,” Miller said.