US president Joe Biden asked Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to introduce daily pauses earlier this week. Israel is said to have committed to announcing each window three hours in advance. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said that civilians would be able to flee using two routes, with a coastal road joining the territory’s main north-south highway, which has been used by tens of thousands of people in recent days.
Mr Kirby called the pauses a “significant first step” and said that the US “want[s] to see them continued for as long as they are needed”. Similar short-term pauses have occurred in the past, but Thursday’s announcement appeared to be an effort to formalise and expand the process as the US has pressed Israel to take greater steps to protect civilians in Gaza.
Gaza has been under aerial bombardment for a month in the wake of an attack by Hamas inside Israel on 7 October that saw 1,400 people killed and around 240 hostages taken back to Gaza. Ground operations have also been ramping up over the last 10 days, with intense fighting inside Gaza City in the north of the strip, where Israel has focused its ground forces.
The health ministry in the Hamas-run strip said that more than 10,800 people – about 40 per cent of them children – had been killed in air and artillery strikes on Gaza as of Thursday, with areas of the strip laid waste by unrelenting Israeli bombardments. There were no immediate reports of a lull in fighting in the wake of the White House announcement.
Israel has also blockaded the strip, with the UN and aid agencies saying that far more aid needs to be allowed into the besieged territory, as fuel used for power, water, food and medical supplies are all running low or running out. The United States wants to see more trucks carrying humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza, aiming for 150 trucks a day, Mr Kirby said. “We need to see more soon,” he added. Before the current conflict, 400 or more trucks of aid used to enter the strip each day. The US Department of State said it is critical that humanitarian supplies and assistance are expanded in the areas where people are moving.
Mr Biden told reporters as he left the White House soon after the announcement that he had sought a longer pause. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve asked for a pause longer than three days.” Asked if he was frustrated with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Biden said, “It’s taken a little longer than I hoped.” The president also said there was “no possibility” of a ceasefire.
Israel’s defence minister said later on Thursday that the military was undertaking “localised, pinpoint measures” in Gaza to enable Palestinian refugees to flee the fighting with Hamas, in an apparent reference to the four-hour pauses announced by Washington.
“These things do not detract from the war fighting,” Yoav Gallant said when asked about the US announcement. Israeli military spokesperson Lt Col Richard Hecht said: “There’s no ceasefire, I repeat there’s no ceasefire. What we are doing, that four-hour window, these are tactical, local pauses for humanitarian aid.”
A UN spokesperson says any halt to fighting for humanitarian purposes would ideally need to be coordinated with the United Nations. Stephane Dujarric said a pause would need to be agreed by all parties to the conflict and coordinated by the UN in order “to be truly effective”.
In northern Gaza, Israeli forces fought Hamas militants and inched their way closer to two big hospitals where thousands are seeking shelter in and around the al-Shifa Hospital and al-Quds Hospital as ground battles rage around them and airstrikes rain down from above. The Israeli military has said that the Hamas main command centre is located in and under the al-Shifa Hospital complex, and that Hamas uses the people sheltering in hospitals as human shields. Hospital staff at al-Shifa have denied that claim.
The hospital has been overwhelmed with daily waves of casualties who have been injured in airstrikes. The UN delivered two truckloads of supplies on Wednesday night, the second delivery since the war began – enough to last a few hours, the hospital’s director said.
“The conditions here are disastrous in every sense of the word,” Mohammed Abu Selmia told reporters. “We’re short on medicine and equipment, and the doctors and nurses are exhausted. We’re unable to do much for the patients.”
The UN humanitarian office, OCHA, said Israel had again told residents in the north to move south, and that shelling around the main road was continuing, endangering evacuees. “We saw decomposed bodies, people from civilian cars, civilians like us, not military cars or resistance men,” Khaled Abu Issa told reporters after crossing into the south with his family at Wadi Gaza.
Mr Kirby said that alongside their humanitarian purpose, the four-hour pauses could help with “getting all 239 hostages [the number still held] back with their families, to include the less than 10 Americans that we know are being held. So if we can get all the hostages out, that’s a nice finite goal ... Humanitarian pauses can be useful in the transfer process.”
Indirect talks have been taking place in Qatar – a country that also played a role in the freeing of four hostages by Hamas last month – about a larger release of hostages. CIA director William Burns was in Doha on Thursday to discuss efforts to win the release of hostages in Gaza with the Qatari prime minister and the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, US officials told various US media outlets.
Also on Thursday, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza said it was prepared to release two Israeli hostages, an older woman and a boy, for humanitarian and medical reasons once appropriate measures were met. It is not clear what those measures might be.
Meanwhile, in Paris, officials from about 80 countries and organisations met to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza and find ways to help injured civilians to escape the siege, now in its second month.
“Without a ceasefire, lifting of the siege and [an end to the] indiscriminate bombarding and warfare, the haemorrhage of human lives will continue,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said prior to the White House announcement.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report