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Palestinians at a site struck by Israeli air strikes in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 14, 2023.STRINGER/Reuters

Pressure is growing on U.S. President Joe Biden to help alleviate the escalating humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian and foreign civilians are trapped amid a siege and expected ground invasion in Israel’s war with Hamas.

Israeli air strikes over the past week have killed more than 2,200 people and reduced city blocks to rubble in retaliation for Hamas’s rampage through southern Israel, which killed more than 1,300 people, mostly civilians, with dozens more abducted. Twenty-nine Americans were killed in Hamas’s attack and 15 are missing, including some believed to be held hostage.

Israel has cut off imports of food, fuel, water and electricity to Gaza, a territory about the size of Montreal. Its 2.3 million people, including at least 400 U.S. citizens, can’t leave.

In a letter to the President and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 55 House Democrats called for the U.S. to put pressure on Israel to allow food, water and electricity into Gaza; open up a humanitarian corridor for Palestinians to escape; and tie any further military aid to Israel to humanitarian aid to Gaza.

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“We strongly believe that Israel’s response must take into account the millions of innocent civilians in Gaza who themselves are victims of Hamas and are suffering the consequences of their terror campaign,” said the letter, spearheaded by Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Democrats’ Progressive Caucus.

In it, the signatories condemned Hamas’s attack as “the worst perpetration of violence inflicted on the Jewish people since the Holocaust” and backed Israel’s “right to defend its people and respond to these vicious attacks.”

Some legislators also spoke out publicly. “The 2M+ Palestinians in Gaza must not be made to pay for Hamas’s terror. The international community must provide access to humanitarian aid and safe exit routes,” Chuy Garcia, a Chicago congressman, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

At an unrelated economic event in Philadelphia on Friday, Mr. Biden said it was a “priority” to “urgently address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” He said he was co-ordinating with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the UN to send aid.

On Saturday, Mr. Biden spoke separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, telling each that the U.S. wants to dispatch aid to civilians.

According to a White House summary of the call with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Biden said he was trying to “ensure innocent civilians have access to water, food and medical care.” He gave Mr. Abbas his “full support” for the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to get aid to Gaza.

In a speech at a Human Rights Campaign dinner on Saturday night, Mr. Biden acknowledged “innocent Palestinian families, and the vast majority of them have nothing to do with Hamas, they’re being used as human shields.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken have both also told Israel to respect international law as it fights Hamas.

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An internally displaced Palestinian washes from a water bottle as he and others take refuge in a United Nations school in the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 14, 2023.MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, Mr. Biden spoke separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, telling each that the U.S. wants to dispatch aid to civilians.

According to a White House summary of the call with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Biden said he was trying to “ensure innocent civilians have access to water, food and medical care.” He gave Mr. Abbas his “full support” for the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to get aid to Gaza.

It was unclear what humanitarian actions specifically the U.S. would take. The White House has previously said it was looking to open humanitarian corridors out of Gaza, but so far has been unable to even get its own citizens out. On Saturday, the State Department said it was advising U.S. citizens in Gaza to get close to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt because it might open with very little notice and only be open briefly.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who advised on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said that, currently, “geographic and political realities” constrain any major humanitarian effort: Israel is unlikely to open its border crossings to allow aid in or anyone out, while Egypt would resist an influx of Palestinian refugees.

Within the territory itself, it is almost impossible for the more than one million residents of Gaza City to heed Israel’s order to evacuate to the south, and it will be extremely difficult to feed and shelter all of those displaced, he said.

Mr. Miller, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it is unlikely Mr. Biden’s position on the war is going to change: In a pair of emotional speeches this week, Mr. Biden said his administration “stands with Israel” and will “make sure Israel has what it needs.”

“I think, for the Biden administration, the frame has already been set,” Mr. Miller said. “Biden has signalled he intends to give the Israelis the time and space to do what they want to do in Gaza.”

Hamas’s attacks were so widespread and horrific that they “have created a margin for acceptance, tolerance, acquiescence for what the Israelis plan to do in Gaza,” he said.

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A man wounded in an air strike is brought to a hospital in Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip now filling with refugees from Gaza City, on Oct. 14, 2023.Yousef Masoud/The New York Times News Service

Reem Sultan, who lives in London, Ont., said her relatives in Gaza were forced to leave their homes Thursday for a UN school and then, early Friday morning, were told to leave again and go south.

“There’s no water, fuel, electricity, medicine in Gaza, so to find a vehicle to take you is very difficult and of course, the majority of roads are rubble. So, they had to walk,” Ms. Sultan said. On Friday afternoon, a cousin said they had walked 16 kilometres and were taking a break before continuing their journey.

She has had no news since then, presumably because their phones have no more power. Ms. Sultan also worries for other relatives, physicians and nurses who had to stay behind to care for patients who could not be evacuated. “It’s very dire at the moment, it’s very difficult. What they tell me is unimaginable, it’s horrific,” she said.

Médecins Sans Frontières said that, at its hospital in Gaza City, patients and doctors had to spend parts of Friday night “in the street with bombs landing in close proximity.” On Saturday, they headed south in a 300-vehicle convoy.

Dahlia Scheindlin, a political consultant in Tel Aviv, said Mr. Biden’s strong stand in the wake of Hamas’s attack was “morally, the right thing to do” but also underscored that he has not so far shown much concern for the Palestinians.

Israel and Egypt have blockaded Gaza since 2007 and Mr. Biden has not made any effort to restart the moribund peace process, she said, adding that he has mostly continued former president Donald Trump’s policies in Israel, including not imposing consequences for Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

“When I hear this incredibly emotional and very valuable position of the President, I think to myself, what does a Palestinian feel watching this and saying ‘where were you? What happens when our civilians are killed, when our infrastructure was getting destroyed?’ ” she said.

Mr. Biden, who is scheduled to speak Saturday night at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Washington, has made shoring up the international liberal democratic order a key part of his presidency. It has informed both his backing of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion as well as his support for Israel against Hamas.

While there have been some pro-Palestinian protests in the U.S. – including one in Brooklyn Friday, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace and calling for a ceasefire – the political consensus in the country is generally in favour of backing Israel.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re talking Trump or Biden: any President will be under tremendous political pressure to provide unwavering political support to the Israelis,” said Sina Azodi, an international-affairs lecturer at George Washington University.

“The situation in Gaza is a test case for the Biden administration’s claim on this rules-based international system,” he said.

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