Palestinian children walk among the houses destroyed in Israeli strikes during the conflict, amid the temporary truce between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 29, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
CNN  — 

Biden administration officials are discussing with their Israeli counterparts how to protect thousands of civilians who fled to southern Gaza should the Israel Defense Forces target the area once the pause in fighting with Hamas ultimately ends, according to multiple US officials.

Among the many options that US and Israeli officials are actively deliberating include moving civilians who went south at the onset of the war back up north once military operations there have ended, one senior US official told CNN. While much of northern Gaza has already been decimated from the fighting and airstrikes, Israel has made clear it is bent on finishing its military operations there.

So far the IDF has warned displaced Palestinians against returning from the south. Moving civilians back north would represent a significant humanitarian challenge, as an estimated 40% to 50% of structures in northern Gaza have been damaged, according to satellite analysis by independent researchers.

That challenge is one of the major reasons US officials are keen on seeing a surge of humanitarian aid into northern Gaza. Multiple US officials have also stressed the need to create areas in the south that are clearly understood to be protected for civilians.

A major reason Israel is expected to begin focusing its military operations in southern Gaza is that intelligence suggests Hamas leadership has fled to that region, according to one US official. That official did not say whether this was US or Israeli intelligence.

In private, Biden administration officials – including President Joe Biden himself – are telling their Israeli counterparts that they do not want to see the IDF resume the kinds of air strikes from earlier in the war that led to massive casualties and widespread destruction, multiple officials told CNN. Instead, Israel must be “more cautious, more careful, more deliberate, and more precise in their targeting,” one senior administration official said.

While it’s not clear whether Israel would ultimately agree, some US officials expressed optimism that Israel was at least receptive to considering such ideas. “There is an understanding that a different type of campaign has to be conducted in the south than was conducted in the north,” another senior administration official said.

While US and Israeli officials have been in constant contact throughout the Israel-Hamas war on the IDF’s military tactics, those discussions have taken on new importance as the truce brokered by the US, Qatar and Egypt could soon come to an end. Israel has made clear to the US that it intends eventually to turn its focus on the southern part of the enclave after the current pause in fighting lifts.

During discussions in Doha this week about extending the truce, Israeli officials have made clear that even the release of all hostages would not be enough to prompt a permanent ceasefire, multiple Israeli sources said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said publicly that Israel intends to continue with its war once the truce ends, pursuing the goal of eradicating Hamas’ ability to conduct an attack like the one on October 7.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is continuing the Biden administration’s push to extend the current “humanitarian pause,” saying on Wednesday that “its continuation, by definition, means that more hostages would be coming home, more assistance would be getting in.”

“So clearly that’s something we want, and I believe it’s also something that Israel wants,” said Blinken, who will have meetings in Israel on Thursday.