(CNN) -- Every day that the pause in Israel's war against Hamas drags on, lives are saved.


A second one-day extension of the truce came into effect early on Thursday. But the pause in fighting also sharpens the moral, political and military dilemmas that will arise in the almost inevitable return to full-scale hostilities, including some apparent strategic and humanitarian differences between the Biden administration and Israel's government.

  • Israel-Hamas War Live: Gaza Hostage Release, Deaths, News and More

Although the truce has so far been surprisingly successful, given that it is taking place with both Israel and Hamas seeking the elimination of the other, there is an unmistakable sense that a fateful moment is approaching in a few days' time, when Israel will decide how long it can sustain its scorching military offensive.

This means that the debate over what will happen next in Gaza is becoming increasingly urgent, even as the United States tries to prolong the pause in fighting in the medium term and Israel tries to temper expectations of moderation in the coming days.

These profound questions also arise in a context of ever-increasing tragedy in a cruel war, even if the appearance of hostages has offered fleeting moments of joy in the midst of horror. In a harrowing development, Israel said Wednesday it was investigating a claim that the youngest Israeli hostage, 10-month-old Kfir Bibas, his brother and mother are no longer alive. Meanwhile, uncertainty surrounds the future of the remaining mostly male hostages that Israel believes remain in Gaza.

The humanitarian crisis in the territory is deepening, and the World Health Organization warns that more Gazans could die from disease than from shelling if an already rudimentary health service is not urgently repaired. And as growing unrest rocks the occupied West Bank, the Israeli army killed two Palestinian children by opening fire in the city of Jenin, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, the latest of more than 240 Palestinians the ministry says have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank since Oct. 7.

advertising

Will Israel listen to U.S. calls for a more precise approach?

Israel has made no secret of its goal since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks that killed 1,200 people: the irrevocable eradication of the U.S.-designated Islamist group as a terrorist organization, which controls Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has viewed the Hamas attacks as an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people and maintains it has no choice but to completely crush Hamas.

The Israeli leader on Wednesday dismissed the idea that the prolonged pause in fighting would make it strategically and morally difficult for Israel to resume its relentless action against Hamas. "Over the past few days I've been hearing this question: Will Israel return to fighting after maximizing this phase of returning our hostages? So my answer is unequivocal: yes," he said.

  • Release of Palestinian prisoners sheds light on Israel's controversial justice system in the occupied West Bank

But Israel's initial attack on Hamas led to a massive slaughter of civilians in the densely populated Palestinian enclave in the first phase of the war, sending tens of thousands of protesters into the streets across the United States and around the world, while also exerting political pressure on President Joe Biden from within his own electoral coalition.

The likely prospect that a second wave of the Israeli offensive against Hamas strongholds in southern Gaza will be even bloodier now threatens to drive wreaks between Washington and Netanyahu's government and military leaders. CNN's MJ Lee, Jennifer Hansler and Katie Bo Lillis reported Wednesday that U.S. officials, including Biden, told Israelis they don't want a repeat of the airstrikes that led to massive destruction and horrific scenes of civilian casualties. Israel must be more "cautious, more careful, more deliberate and more precise in its targets," a senior administration official said.

In the days after the Oct. 7 attacks, Biden closely embraced Israel and Netanyahu, traveling to the Jewish state to accompany the victims of the horror in mourning. Will the Israeli prime minister pay more attention to Biden's plea to do more to protect Palestinian civilians than the passing consideration he gave it in the early days of the conflict?

  • Families of U.S. hostages denounce Hamas' 'psychological warfare' and call for the release of their loved ones

It's an issue that is likely to lead to intense discussions Thursday between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in Israel, and senior Israeli officials.

Israel's Moral and Military Dilemmas

The Israeli government is being pulled in two directions that may be irreconcilable: the desire to get all the hostages back and the incentive to press ahead with its military operation after a pause that offered Hamas a chance to regroup and prepare for a new assault.

At home, the Israeli prime minister, beset by deep unpopularity following surprise Hamas attacks, is also caught up in mounting political pressures from the hostage's families, who want the release of their loved ones, and right-wing members of his coalition, who are advocating tough action amid frustration that the pause has allowed Hamas to use the hostages to regain control of the pace of the crisis. In addition, Netanyahu faces the growing possibility of a conflict between his desire to attack Hamas and U.S. concern over another round of huge civilian casualties in Gaza. U.S. support would be even more crucial for Israel in a second phase of the fighting, because foreign powers are likely to harshly criticize Netanyahu's government if it is seen to reignite hostilities.

  • Who are the hostages Hamas has released so far?

Israel's heavy-handed military tactics are also coming under scrutiny amid fears that more civilian casualties will sow a new generation of fury against the Jewish state that will eventually translate into recruitment to extremist groups and terrorism.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis noted that the Israeli leader sees the elimination of Hamas as the key to bringing peace to Israel, but warned, "What he's doing with the army won't bring that peace." He told Kasie Hunt on CNN International's "State of the Race" that "I've seen it myself in Afghanistan a number of times, where the more Taliban you kill, the more enemies, the more you do, especially when you're killing so many people."

Israel says it is striving to avoid killing civilians. Hamas has infiltrated its forces into the civilian population, using infrastructure such as hospitals and apartment buildings as a cover. Senior Israeli officials argue that while Washington wants to see a greater number of targeted strikes against Hamas if the battle resumes, such an approach is not always feasible given the conditions in Gaza.

  • The truce gives Gazans a moment to breathe and reveals the scale of the devastation

"We are not magicians," former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday, accusing Hamas of deliberately sacrificing Palestinian civilians to stoke global anger against Israel. "If there was some magic solution that would allow us to take out our people and just hit the rocket launcher firing rockets at the Israelis, we would do it," Bennett told CNN's Jake Tapper. "We try to reduce unnecessary civilian casualties, but the reality is that there is no magic."

One possible approach that US and Israeli officials are deliberating is for Israel to allow civilians it sent to southern Gaza early in the war to return to the north, a senior US official told CNN. Multiple officials have also raised the need to create safe zones for civilians in the south, CNN reported. But there are practical difficulties with this plan. On the one hand, the Israeli advance has devastated large areas of northern Gaza, as shown by new drone footage of miles and miles of buildings turned into rubble. In an enclave surrounded by Israel and with the border with Egypt closed, millions of people have nowhere else to go.

As debate rages over the tactics to be employed in a second phase of the war, the very idea of resuming fighting while the hostages are still in the hands of Hamas horrifies the families of those still being held. The pause in fighting over the past week has offered both Netanyahu and Biden some political relief on this issue, but that would end as soon as the guns started firing.

Yehuda Beinin, father of Liat Beinin, a dual U.S.-Israeli woman freed by Hamas on Wednesday, expressed growing concern among the families of the hostages that the remaining hostages are not the first priority of the Netanyahu government. "Naturally, this would create a great fear that the hostages would be in some kind of danger again, as a result of further Israeli bombardment," said Beinin, whose son-in-law, Aviv Atzili, is believed to still be a hostage.

Biden administration steps up diplomacy

The Biden administration's current priorities are:

  • A further extension of the truce.
  • The release of all hostages from Gaza.
  • Alleviation of the terrible humanitarian crisis in the enclave.
  • Support Israel's efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks.
  • Focus on the governance of Gaza in the aftermath of the war, before addressing the issue of diplomacy to end the long-overdue Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The potential difficulties with Israel lie in the fact that those goals, or their urgency, do not always coincide with those of the Netanyahu government. Biden has a huge interest in the conflict for humanitarian, political, and geopolitical reasons. The president said in a statement Wednesday that the U.S., along with Qatar, had been instrumental in negotiating the pause that had freed dozens of hostages, and had delivered important humanitarian aid to help "the innocent people of Gaza."

  • U.S. warns Israel against reoccupying Gaza as Netanyahu hints at what the enclave would look like after war

Biden's support for Netanyahu has cost him politically at home and abroad. U.S. foreign policy goals in the Arab world and elsewhere risk being compromised as governments react to outrage over civilian deaths in Gaza. Fundamental initiatives such as the attempt to consolidate peace between Israel and the Arab States have been seriously undermined. Domestically, the scenes of Palestinian deaths have divided the Democratic Party and raised fears about whether younger, more progressive voters, who are already reluctant toward Biden, will turn out in the numbers he needs in November 2024. Less worrisome, but still significant, are the Republicans' attacks on the first sign that he tries to rein in Netanyahu.

While there is no sense that America's unwavering support for Israel is in jeopardy, the real danger of growing differences between the two governments over the future conduct of the war could introduce new tensions into the relationship.

The vital national interests of the United States and Israel are not always or irrevocably aligned. In the coming days, therefore, it will be necessary to keep a close eye on whether Netanyahu has political room to maneuver on military strategy or the inclination to relieve some of the pressure on Biden.

How far will Israel go to test Biden's loyalty, tolerance and political viability if the war escalates? And when push comes to shove, will Netanyahu's desire to eliminate Hamas trump all other considerations?