US top diplomat urges Israel to avoid harming civilians in Gaza

January 10, 2024 9:23 am

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Israel's President Isaac Herzog [Source: Reuters]

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israeli leaders to avoid harming civilians as it presses its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, saying the daily toll was far too high.

Blinken, making his fourth visit to the Middle East since the war erupted in October, also told them that the creation of a Palestinian state was key to a long-term solution.

But it was also vital that Israel achieved its objective of eradicating the threat from Hamas, he said at the end of a day of talks in Tel Aviv.

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Even as he spoke, intense fighting gripped south and central parts of Gaza. Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants also exchanged fire on the Lebanon-Israel border.

International concern has mounted over the huge Palestinian death toll from the Israeli assault on the densely populated enclave, as well as a humanitarian crisis afflicting hundreds of thousands of people.

The Israeli air and ground assault, prompted by a cross-border Hamas rampage into southern Israel on Oct. 7, has now killed 23,210 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry, and obliterated large areas from north to south.

The U.S. and other countries are also anxious to prevent the war from spreading through the Middle East.

Meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a military base in Tel Aviv, Blinken stressed “the importance of avoiding further civilian harm and protecting civilian infrastructure in Gaza”, a State Department spokesperson said.

Blinken repeated the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself and to prevent a repeat of the lightning Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules Gaza and is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Addressing a press conference after his meetings, Blinken said the daily toll of the war on civilians in Gaza was far too high though added that charges that Israel was committing genocide were “meritless”.

He also said Palestinians displaced by the war must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. The United States rejected any proposals for resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza, as some far-right Israeli ministers have called for.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told Blinken that Israel’s offensive in Gaza’s southern Khan Younis area will “intensify and continue until Hamas leadership is detected and Israeli hostages return home safely”, the defence ministry said.

Blinken has also been discussing plans for future governance of Gaza when the war eventually ends.

In his session with Netanyahu, Blinken “reiterated the need to ensure lasting, sustainable peace for Israel and the region, including by the realization of a Palestinian state,” the State Department spokesman said.

In the days prior to his Israel visit, Blinken held talks in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, focused on seeking a longer-term approach to the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict.

He said Washington’s Arab allies wanted closer relations with Israel but only if that included a “practical pathway” to a Palestinian state. Many countries in the region are ready to invest in Gaza’s future in that case, he said.

U.S.-brokered talks on a Palestinian state in territory now occupied by Israel collapsed almost a decade ago. Right-wing leaders in Israel’s current ruling coalition oppose Palestinian statehood.

At his press conference, Blinken declined to characterize how Netanyahu and his cabinet responded to his appeal on a Palestinian state.

“These goals are attainable, but only if they are pursued together,” he said. “To make this possible, Israel must be a partner to Palestinian leaders who are willing to lead their people living side by side in peace with Israel and as neighbours.”

The Palestinian leadership must reform itself and improve its governance, he said, but Israel must stop taking steps that undercut it.

“Extremist settler violence carried out with impunity, settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions, all make it harder, not easier for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security,” he said, alluding to conflict in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, part of the territory Palestinians want for a state.

Reacting to Blinken’s words, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the visit showed there was no fundamental change in the U.S. position. “The aim of the visit was to support the security of the occupation,” he told Reuters. “There are no differences between Israel and the Americans.”