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US State Department touts collective punishment as leverage with Hamas

Spokesperson says Hamas should accept deal 'because they don't want to see ... continued Palestinian people dying'
Palestinians look at the shrouded bodies of people reportedly killed in an Israeli strike on the western Rimal neighbourhood on 5 June 2024.
Palestinians look at shrouded bodies of people reportedly killed in an Israeli strike on western Rimal neighbourhood of Gaza City, on 5 June 2024 (Omar al-Qattaa/AFP)

In several exchanges with reporters this week, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called on Hamas to end the suffering and deaths of innocent Palestinians in the war on Gaza by accepting a ceasefire, in remarks that have been criticised as leveraging collective punishment against the Palestinian group.

On Tuesday, Miller was asked during a press briefing about the terms of the latest ceasefire proposal and why Hamas would accept an agreement that would see the dissolution of the group itself.

The spokesperson responded, "because they don't want to see continued conflict, continued Palestinian people dying. They don't want to see war in Gaza".

The comments by Miller were criticised by legal experts, who say that Washington was admitting to using the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians as a bargaining chip against Hamas leadership.

Then on Wednesday, the issue was again brought up during a State Department press briefing.

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"You say that Hamas and [Yahya] Sinwar should bear in mind that what should draw them to a ceasefire is that Palestinian people are being killed. But your position is that no Palestinian civilians should be killed. So why do you raise that point as a point of pressure on Hamas?" Tom Batemen, a correspondent for the BBC, asked.

In response, Miller said: "It is just a point of actual fact."

"It just feels rather contradictory if your position is that Palestinian civilians should not be killed, to raise that as a specific point of pressure on Hamas to come to a ceasefire," Bateman said in a follow-up exchange with Miller.

Israel and Hamas have for months now been engaged in on-and-off negotiations around a possible ceasefire agreement that would see an end to Israel's war on Gaza.

Last week, US President Joe Biden announced a three-phase Israeli proposal that would see first a six-week ceasefire and then the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from all population centres in the enclave.

The Biden administration has repeatedly called on Hamas leadership to accept the deal, despite Israel having yet to sign the deal itself.

The plan also appears nearly identical to the CIA-mediated one Hamas said it was offered in early May. Israel rejected that plan by launching an invasion of Rafah.

Since Israel's war on Gaza began in October 2023, Israeli forces have killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

The US has called on Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza but has yet to make any determination regarding Israel violating international humanitarian law over the killing of civilians there.

In a recent report by the State Department, the Biden administration said there were reasonable grounds to believe that Israel was using American-supplied weapons in contravention of international law, but ultimately said it could not make any definitive conclusions on the matter.

The White House has also stated in recent months that Israel is not violating international law, a claim legal experts have told Middle East Eye is "complete nonsense".

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