In a call on Thursday, President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must take concrete steps to reduce civilian harm and improve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, warning U.S. policy going forward would depend on whether Israelis follow through. 

What You Need To Know

  • President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday for the time since seven aid workers, including one American, were killed in an apparent Israeli air strike as they returned from an aid mission
  • According to a readout of the call from the White House, Biden told the prime minister that the strikes and the overall humanitarian situation in Gaza were “unacceptable” and that an “immediate" cease-fire "is essential" 
  • The president also told Netanyahu that Israel must craft “specific, concrete and measurable” steps to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the safety of aid workers in the Palestinian territory

“He made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers,” the White House said on Thursday. “He made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

The 30-minute call marked the pair’s first since seven aid workers, including one American, were killed in an apparent Israeli air strike as they returned from an aid mission. 

Biden, according to the White House, told his Israeli counterpart that the strikes against aid workers and the humanitarian situation in Gaza as a whole is “unacceptable,” noting an “immediate” cease-fire is needed to “improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians.”

“He underscored that an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians, and he urged the Prime Minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home,” the statement from the White House read. 

During Thursday’s press briefing, White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby declined to elaborate on how U.S. policy on the war could change. Kirby, however, did lay out what the U.S. wants to see from Israel, citing a “dramatic increase in humanitarian aid assistance [going] in”; new crossings opened up to allow more aid to enter; and a reduction in violence against civilians and aid workers. 

Kirby said the White House hopes to see movement toward such steps “in the coming hours and days.”

In an interview with Spectrum News on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris put the warning to Netanyahu more straightforward: “If there are not changes to their approach, it is very likely we're going to change our approach,” Harris said of the message on the call. 

Tensions between Biden and Netanyahu have recently escalated over a potential Israeli invasion of Rafah and the killing of aid workers on Monday. 

Seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen — a humanitarian aid organization that frequently parachutes into areas facing crisis-levels of food insecurity, including war zones like Gaza, areas recovering from national disasters and parts of the U.S. during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020 — were killed Monday night in an apparent Israeli air strike, as they returned from an aid mission. 

The killing of the seven workers kicked off a wave of anger, including from the White House, with Biden on Tuesday saying he was "outraged and heartbroken" by the killings of the workers, calling their deaths "a tragedy."

"Even more tragically, this is not a standalone incident. This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed. This is a major reason why distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult — because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians," Biden added. "Incidents like yesterday’s simply should not happen. Israel has also not done enough to protect civilians."

Biden spoke with Chef Jose Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen and a co-chair of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, expressing his condolences.

The phone call between the two national leaders marks their first since March 18, when Biden requested that Netanyahu send an Israeli delegation to Washington to hear the Biden administration’s pitch on an alternative approach to an invasion of Rafah that avoids a major ground operation. 

The prime minister then canceled the delegation after the U.S. abstained, rather than vetoed, a U.N. Security Council resolution that demanded an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza and the release of hostages.

Days later, the White House confirmed that Netanyahu had agreed to reschedule the meeting. On Monday, U.S. and Israeli officials met virtually to discuss Rafah, with a readout of the meeting saying officials were still hoping to hold in-person talks. 

Tensions have flared over Israel’s potential military operation in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza where more than one million civilians are taking refuge amid the monthslong war.

Netanyahu continues to insist that an invasion of Rafah is the necessary next step in its campaign to eliminate Hamas following the group's Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed around 1,200 people. The White House has made clear it doesn’t support a full ground operation without a plan to protect civilians in the city, which Kirby last week described as a “difficult chore” for any military. 

“There's not a whole lot of geographic space to relocate people in a safe and secure way.  That would be a difficult chore for any modern military,” he told reporters on a call. “So we don't support a major ground operation.”

Following a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Israel last month, in a statement, Netanyahu said Israel would proceed with its goal in Rafah whether or not the U.S. supports the move. 

Spectrum News' David Mendez contributed to this report.