Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin came to Capitol Hill to defend President Joe Biden's sweeping supplemental funding request for foreign aid, arguing that U.S national security hinges on bolstering Israel while sustaining support for Ukraine and countering China simultaneously.
But even before Blinken could get through his opening statement Tuesday calling for a synchronized approach to cementing a united front against America's adversaries, the deep divisions coursing through Washington and beyond were on full display as protesters adorned in fake blood chanted demands for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, forcing the secretary to pause his testimony several times as they were escorted from the chamber.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has persisted for decades, the Oct. 7 surprise terrorist attack by Hamas and Israel's subsequent retaliation have ignited a frenzy of polarized and deeply personal reactions across the globe, creating new challenges for the Biden administration and the government of Israel as two critical objectives -- wiping out Hamas and avoiding a regional war -- threaten to collide.
When his testimony wasn't interrupted by outburst from demonstrators, Blinken tried to convey a balanced approach from the administration.
"As President Biden has made clear from the outset, while Israel has the right -- indeed, it has the obligation -- to defend itself, the way it does so matters," he said. "The president and I have both stressed in our conversations with the Israeli government the need for Israel to operate by the law of war and in accordance with international humanitarian law, and to take all possible measures to avoid civilian casualties."
On Tuesday, a strike on Gaza's largest refugee camp resulted in 52 civilian casualties, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. The Israeli Defense Forces took responsibility, saying it was targeting a Hamas military stronghold in the camp, that it took out a "main leader of combat" and that Israel has been warning civilians to leave the area for weeks.
Hamas' terror attack on Oct. 7 killed more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli authorities. In response to the attack, the Israeli military has carried out wide-scale airstrikes on Gaza, killing more than 8,300 people, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health
Across the administration, officials have publicly acknowledged that the loss of innocent lives is a tragic and unavoidable consequence of warfare, and that Hamas has made a well-documented practice of using civilians as human shields.
But privately, officials have expressed concern that collateral damage from Israel's actions will ignite a sweeping conflict and isolate the U.S. ally.
Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a part-time senior adviser to the State Department on the International Security Advisory Board, says their fears are well-founded.
"Already, Hezbollah has threatened to join the fray and stepped up attacks on Israel from Lebanon, unrest is growing in the West Bank, the Houthis in Yemen have launched missiles at Israel, and U.S. bases in the Middle East have suffered attacks from Iranian proxies, leading the United States to strike Iran-linked sites in Syria," Byman said in recent analysis published in Foreign Policy magazine.
"A broader war involving Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups would pose a grave threat to Israel, increase the risk of international terrorism, and implicate many U.S. interests," he continued.
While Washington and Israel have maintained a degree of separation when it comes to the intricacies of operational plans, according to senior administration officials, the U.S. has been quietly pushing for a more incremental approach to rooting out Hamas as opposed to launching a massive ground invasion like the one Israeli officials repeatedly promised in the immediate aftermath of Hamas' rampage, fearing such large-scale operations would result in a massive number of civilian casualties.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement on Saturday that the war on Hamas had entered a "new phase," including increased aerial attacks and broader, sustained ground operations but not an all-encompassing incursion, was an indication that Israel was taking Washington's advice, a possible attempt to squeeze out militants while allowing negotiations for the more than 200 hostages imprisoned by Hamas to continue, officials said.
"The Israeli government won't admit it publicly, but the goalposts in its war against Hamas have moved. Reason has settled in, for now," said Bilal Y. Saab, a senior fellow and the director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.
"In lieu of a massive ground incursion, the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) 'second phase' will seek to encircle and bleed Hamas until the threat it poses to Israeli population centers becomes negligible or manageable," he continued.
Still, a slower approach has the potential to result in more flashpoints over time -- potentially yielding similar backlash that could jeopardize Israel's standing in the region and its future security.
Despite the IDF's explanation for striking Gaza's refugee camp to target a Hamas military stronghold, leaders in the Middle East have shown little interest in Israeli explanations. Many continue to condemn the IDF for a blast at a Gaza hospital weeks after Israel provided evidence supporting its claim that the inferno was caused by a misfired rocket launched by militants within the enclave -- an assessment U.S. intelligence officials also say they independently reached.
"Many Arab leaders privately loathe Hamas and would be delighted if Israel destroyed it," Byman said. "Their publics, however, are pleased that Israel has been hit hard and outraged at the destruction that Israel is raining down on Gaza. Israeli operations have led to protests throughout the Arab world, including in countries such as Bahrain and Egypt, which have normalized relations with Israel."
Byman also noted that although Saudi Arabia previously appeared to be on the verge of normalizing ties with Israel -- a development Blinken previously said would be "transformative" in stabilizing the Middle East -- the kingdom has issued a steady stream of statements criticizing Israel's campaign.
Sharan Grewal, a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, argues that mitigating damage to public opinion will determine whether another threat to the U.S. and Israel rises to take its place.
"The strategic logic of terrorism tells us that groups like Hamas attempt to goad the stronger state into overreaching," Grewal said, adding that a full ground invasion or occupation may serve to "further catalyze anti-Israeli sentiment in Palestine and beyond."
"Even if Hamas is somehow destroyed, this sentiment guarantees that another group will take its place," he said. "The easy path is to return to business as usual and continue the cycle of violence. The difficult path is thinking outside the box for a long-term solution for peace."
'New phase' of Gaza conflict poses challenges for US, Israel: ANALYSIS originally appeared on abcnews.go.com