The U.S. said Israel agreed to pause fighting in parts of the northern Gaza Strip for four hours each day so people can flee, a request that the Biden administration has made for days as the civilian death toll in the war with Hamas keeps rising.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. understood Israel would start that process Thursday and referred further questions to the Israeli military. Israeli army spokesman Richard Hecht later Thursday confirmed pauses are taking place but downplayed the announcement’s significance.
Israel will enact “tactical local pauses for humanitarian aid, which are limited in time and area,” Hecht told reporters after Kirby’s announcement.
“We understand that Israel will begin to implement four-hour pauses in areas of northern Gaza each day, with an announcement to be made three hours beforehand,” Kirby told reporters. “We’ve been told by the Israelis that there will be no military operations in these areas over the duration of the pause, and that this process is starting today.”
Kirby called the pauses “significant steps in the right direction.”
Hecht said the plan would allow civilians in Gaza to move from the territory’s north, where the heaviest fighting is taking place, to the south. He said the pauses don’t represent a shift in strategy and Israel was already taking similar action to allow people to leave the conflict zone.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement 50,000 Gazans used “humanitarian corridors” on Wednesday to move away from the fighting.
The U.S. and its allies have been calling for such humanitarian pauses as they press Israel to avoid targeting civilians and allow aid to get to the Gaza Strip even as it proceeds with the military campaign meant to root out Hamas. Israel launched the campaign in response to an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed some 1,400 people.
President Joe Biden spoke to Netanyahu on Monday amid efforts to secure the release of some 200 hostages seized by Hamas in the attack. Asked Thursday if he is seeking a longer-lasting halt to the fighting to secure the hostages’ release, Biden told reporters, “I’ve asked for a pause longer than three days.”
Biden acknowledged growing U.S. consternation over Netanyahu’s resistance, saying “it’s taking a little longer than I had hoped” when reporters asked if he was frustrated Netanyahu hasn’t agreed to do what he asked.
Palestinian health authorities say the Israeli response has killed some 10,000 people, and calls have grown in the Arab world and elsewhere for a ceasefire. Netanyahu has rejected that idea, saying Israel must root out Hamas, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack.