US President Joe Biden is under growing pressure to rein in Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.
The thousands of civilian casualties and desperate humanitarian conditions have alarmed Arab allies, but also stirred an extraordinary level of criticism from within his own administration.
“I’m stunned by the intensity,” said Aaron David Miller, who worked as an adviser on Arab-Israeli relations during a 25 year tenure at the US State Department.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
Several internal memos have been sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken through a channel, established after the Vietnam war, which allows employees to register disapproval of policy.
An open letter is also said to be circulating at the Agency for International Development (USAID). Another has been dispatched to the White House by political appointees and staff members representing dozens of government agencies. Another to members of Congress by staffers on Capitol Hill.
Much of this dissent is private, and the signatures are often anonymous out of concerns the protest might affect jobs, so the full scale of it is not clear. But according to leaks cited by multiple reports, hundreds of people have signed on to the wave of opposition.
An administration official has told the BBC that these concerns are very real and there are active discussions about them.
At a minimum, the letters are asking that President Biden demand an immediate ceasefire, and push Israel much harder to allow for more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
In some cases, the language is stronger, echoing the rhetoric of young political activists and apparently reflecting to some degree a generational divide that is more critical of Israel and sympathetic to Palestinians.
The letters condemn the atrocities carried out by Hamas during its surprise 7 October attack that killed around 1,200 people, mostly Israeli civilians.
More than 12,000 have been killed in Gaza by Israel since that attack, according to the latest figure from the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry. Israel has said it is trying to minimise civilian casualties in the war in Gaza but has not been successful, blaming this on Hamas.
The high number of Palestinian deaths is a “font of the dismay” in the administration, according to Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a former US diplomat who is now president of the Middle East Policy Council.
The administration’s support for the Israeli military operation appears for many “far too much of a one-sided position for the US government”, she said.
Ms Abercrombie-Winstanley signed dissent cables during her career and has been consulted by current employees about whether they should do so now. These memos feel like they have a “broader reach” than others, she said, drawing in people who are not necessarily working on the specific issue at hand.
How Biden is responding
Ms Abercrombie-Winstanley believes the chorus of dismay has contributed to significant shifts in US language and approach, since the days immediately after the Hamas attack when President Biden pledged unwavering support for Israel in an emotional address.
Propelled by the destruction in Gaza and growing anger in the Arab world, the administration’s rhetoric on protecting civilians has become more insistent. “Far too many Palestinians have been killed” in Gaza, Mr Blinken said recently.
He and other senior officials are now treating humanitarian assistance as not only a moral imperative, but a strategic one too.
This is something Mr Blinken highlights when meeting frustrated employees in listening sessions, according to State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller. He makes clear that “it is the United States of America, not any other country, that was able to secure an agreement to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza” and “to get humanitarian pauses”.
The secretary of state is aware of the disquiet simmering in his building and has made a point of addressing it.
“We’re listening,” he wrote after returning from his recent trip to the Middle East, in an email obtained by the BBC. “What you share is informing our policy and our messages.”
But it has not changed core policy approaches, nor appeared to have had significant influence on Israel’s military campaign.
The Biden administration has become more open about airing its growing divergences with Israel. Mr Blinken has deliberately set out principles of Palestinian governance and statehood for the “day after” in Gaza, that Israel’s right-wing government rejects.
The president is frequently on the phone to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and senior officials keep up a steady drumbeat of visits to the region, pressing Israel to follow the laws of war.
But there’s no suggestion the Biden administration is considering using its main leverage, putting conditions on its massive military assistance to Israel, which was ramped up even further after the Hamas attack.
And Biden signalled this week that the US had not given Israel a deadline for its military campaign to end.
It will end when Hamas “no longer maintains the capacity to murder, abuse and just do horrific things” to Israel, the president said.
The bottom line is that the US and Israel have the same goal, according to Mr Miller, the former adviser at the State Department. Both want to destroy Hamas’s capacity as a military organisation so it can never mount a 7 October-style attack again.
With that aim in mind, he said, a full ceasefire that ends hostilities in pursuit of peace does not make operational or political sense.
It only delays war, Mr Miller said, “because you’re not going to get a negotiated ending to this… The tactics may differ, but the objective remains the same”.