White House suggests 'pauses' in Israel-Hamas conflict to get people out

Press briefing at the White House in Washington

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The White House on Thursday said it was exploring a series of pauses in the Israel-Hamas conflict to help people safely exit Gaza and allow humanitarian aid to get in, but reiterated its opposition to a full ceasefire.

National security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that such pauses should be temporary and localized, and insisted they would not stop Israel from defending itself.

"What we're trying to do is explore the idea of as many pauses as might be necessary to continue to get aid out and to continue to work to get people out safely, including hostages," he told reporters at a regular White House briefing.

President Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday about the need for a pause to provide time for the release of hostages held by Hamas, but has ruled out calling for a full ceasefire.

His fellow Democrat, Senator Dick Durbin, on Thursday told CNN it was time for a ceasefire, while Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, called for a humanitarian pause to allow critical aid to reach civilians.

United Nations experts are also urging a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, saying time is running out for Palestinian people there who find themselves at "grave risk of genocide."

Israel says it is aiming its attacks at Hamas, not civilians, and accuses the group of using them as human shields.

Nearly four weeks of Israeli bombardment against the Gaza Strip in retaliation for deadly attacks by Hamas gunmen in southern Israel on Oct. 7 have killed at least 9,061 people, made up of a majority of women and children, health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say.

The White House on Thursday said 79 of its citizens have left the Gaza Strip in the two days since a crossing opened to Egypt, and it hoped more could be released in coming days, but conceded the situation remained "fluid."

Kirby told reporters that 55 more aid trucks were expected to enter Gaza on Thursday, bringing the total to more than 220, but said increasing aid remained a top priority for Biden.

He said the United States was speaking with Israel daily and urging it to avoid civilian casualties. He noted that U.S. military officers had traveled to Israel to share lessons learned in past urban conflicts but they had since returned home, and Washington was not helping Israel with its targeting.

"There are things you can do from the ground that you can't do from the air, particularly if you have good intelligence," he said, without elaborating.

"We're doing everything we can to work with our Israeli counterparts to try to minimize the risk of civilian deaths and collateral damage," Kirby said. "We are giving them the tools, including perspective and advice but also weapons, to be able to conduct these operations in the most efficient way possible, and in a way that minimizes civilian harm."

Kirby said the scope of Israel's operations showed "they are making efforts to try to minimize civilian casualties," adding it was clear that some casualties were still occurring.

Asked if the United States bore responsibility for civilian deaths if it was providing such weapons, Kirby insisted that Washington was not "making the targeting decisions."

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Katharine Jackson; writing by Costas Pitas; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Sandra Maler)