U.S. relents, allowing U.N. passage of demand for cease-fire in Gaza

Palestinians inspect the damage of residential buildings after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Palestinians inspect the damage of residential buildings after an Israeli airstrike Sunday in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Fatima Shbair / Associated Press)
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For the record:
6:00 p.m. March 25, 2024: An earlier version of this report referred to Tim Scott as a Republican senator from North Carolina. Scott is from South Carolina.

In a significant reversal, the Biden administration Monday allowed passage of a U.N. resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza — the first such call to emerge from the world body in more than five months of conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.

The U.S. decision to abstain — instead of issuing a veto — marked the strongest testament to date of Washington's mounting impatience with Israel's conduct during the war, as relations between the allies have begun to sour. It is almost unheard of for the U.S. to fail to side with Israel at the United Nations.

Yet it remained unclear whether, or how quickly, Israel or the Hamas militant group would feel obliged to lay down their arms.

Ahead of the 14-0 vote at U.N. headquarters in New York, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to cancel the visit of an official Israeli delegation to Washington if the U.S. did not veto the measure. Minutes after the vote by the Security Council, Netanyahu made good on the threat, scrapping the trip and saying any cease-fire should be conditioned on the release of hostages seized by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The resolution calls for a halt to fighting for the roughly two weeks that remain in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the release of hostages, while not directly linking the two demands.

Netanyahu accused the Biden administration of "retreating" from its "principled positions" on hostages. The high-level Israeli delegation was to supply to U.S. officials their plan for the invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Read more: Israel's religious right has a clear plan for Gaza: 'We are occupying, deporting and settling'

The U.S. has labeled such a military operation a mistake because of the more than 1 million Palestinians crowding the besieged city in search of shelter, and has insisted that Israel take concrete steps to avoid civilian casualties. Israeli officials insist their defeat of Hamas will not be complete without a major offensive in Rafah.

Privately, U.S. officials have complained that Israel was dragging its feet in coming up with an acceptable Rafah plan and remained skeptical Monday that such a plan has been drafted. The cancellation of the delegation's trip was viewed as a missed opportunity.

"We're very disappointed that they won't be coming to Washington, D.C., to allow us to have a fulsome conversation with them about viable alternatives to them going in on the ground in Rafah," White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

Kirby suggested the U.S. might have voted in favor of the U.N. resolution, instead of merely abstaining, if it had included language condemning Hamas.

Just Friday, a similar U.S. resolution at the Security Council that did condemn Hamas was vetoed by permanent members China and Russia, underscoring U.S. impotence in resolving the Gaza war. At the same time, America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, was coming up essentially empty-handed in tough talks with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials on his sixth trip to Israel since Oct. 7.

The language of the resolution was the subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations until the last minute, but the measure again made the release of hostages a priority and an integral part of the cease-fire, Blinken said. The U.S. has not changed its position, he said.

Read more: A hostage love story: Vows in Israel, captivity in Gaza, rebuilding in Thailand

But for weeks, the Biden administration has felt pressure to distance itself from the growing carnage in the coastal Gaza Strip enclave.

The United States has found itself increasingly isolated on the world stage in its seemingly unconditional support for Israel since Oct. 7. Even close allies like Canada and parts of Europe were way ahead of the U.S. in demanding a cease-fire, which Israel opposed, claiming that suspending the war would allow Hamas to regroup.

Three previous U.N. resolutions calling for a cessation of Gaza hostilities were vetoed by the U.S., against overwhelming support from other countries.

Netanyahu has vowed all-out obliteration of Hamas as the only way to ensure Israelis' long-term safety, but many experts believe that to be an unattainable goal.

In addition to international opposition, the Biden administration has had to deal with intense domestic dissent, especially among portions of the Democratic Party's base of people of color, young voters and Arab Americans who have shown more support for Palestinians and their long-thwarted quest for statehood.

Biden and other U.S. officials have been peppered with protest chants of "Cease-fire now!" at numerous public appearances. In a key swing state, Michigan, nearly a fifth of voters in the Democratic primary this month marked their ballots with "uncommitted" instead of the name of Biden or any other candidate.

Within the U.S. political right wing, however, critics saw "abandonment" of Israel.

"Instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our great ally, the Biden administration has undermined Israel and emboldened Hamas terrorists at every turn," Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said on social media.

Ramadan ends around April 9, meaning the cease-fire would last two weeks. But the resolution states that the pause should lead “to a permanent sustainable cease-fire.”

Palestinians and other Arab leaders welcomed approval of the resolution, although it was unclear how quickly and thoroughly a cease-fire could be enacted and enforced. Another key reason for a stop in the fighting is to ease the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid to people on the brink of famine.

The Hamas leadership said it was ready to engage in an exchange of hostages the militant group holds for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails — the template followed for such a release late last year. Hamas also called on the Security Council to pressure Israel to "stop the war of genocide" and to withdraw all forces from Gaza.

Algeria, which helped draft the resolution as the Arab bloc's member on the Security Council, said the group was “finally shouldering its responsibility" to maintain "international peace and security.”

"The Palestinian people have suffered greatly," Algeria's ambassador to the U.N., Amar Bendjama, said after the vote. "This bloodbath has continued for far too long."

Read more: At a boy's funeral, a Palestinian village gathers to bid farewell

Israel says around 1,200 people were killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on kibbutzim, a crowded music festival and other sites in southern Israel, and about 200 taken hostage. Since then, in relentless Israeli air strikes and military operations, more than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, according to the Hamas-led Gaza Health Ministry. Around two-thirds of the dead have been women and children, the ministry says.

In addition, international aid agencies issued a warning March 18 that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza and that protraction of the war could send half of the territory’s 2.3 million people to the brink of starvation.

With Gaza residents suffering months of relentless bombing, displacement and starvation, the passage of the resolution comes with high — and perhaps unrealistic — expectations, said Ramy Abdu, a Gazan lawyer who chairs the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor.

"There's optimism on the ground because Hamas welcomed the resolution, and this has given Palestinians hope that there is sincere intent to reach a cease-fire," he said. "The painful part is that people's expectations are very high, to the point that many are asking what hour a cease-fire will come into place."

Wilkinson reported from Washington and Bulos from Beirut. Staff writer Seema Mehta contributed from Los Angeles.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.