Antony Blinken pushes Israel to limit civilian casualties

US Secretary of State is on fourth trip to the Middle East since October 7

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Israeli Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 9. Reuters
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pushed Israeli leaders to limit civilian casualties in the country’s military campaign in Gaza.

According to Gaza officials, more than 23,000 people have been killed in the territory since Israel declared war against Hamas after the October 7 attacks on Israel killed about 1,200.

Mr Blinken told reporters that fighting an enemy who hides among civilians is “incredibly challenging” but said the daily toll on civilians in Gaza, particularly on children, “is far too high”.

He earlier met Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and “urged” Israel to take all possible measures to avoid civilian harm, protect infrastructure, and allow more aid in, the State Department said.

It appears Mr Blinken's remarks are having little effect, and this is not the first time he has pressed Israeli leaders to do more to protect civilians in the conflict.

He made similar pleas during his most recent trip to Israel in December.

Israel remains set on continuing its war as it shifts its military focus to Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

According to the Israeli government, Mr Gallant told Mr Blinken that they would “intensify” the fight in the southern city as they sought to destroy Hamas leaders.

Israel’s far-right National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has a long history of making comments that anger the US, took to social-media platform X to criticise Mr Blinken’s approach.

“Mr Secretary Blinken, it’s not the time to speak softly with Hamas, it’s time to use that big stick,” Mr Ben-Gvir said.

Washington has been Israel's biggest ally throughout the war and continues to flow weaponry and munitions to Israeli forces.

President Joe Biden's administration has twice vetoed UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire and sent thousands of bombs and other weaponry to the Israeli military, including a recent shipment Mr Blinken authorised without congressional approval.

White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that nothing had changed in the Biden administration's opposition to a ceasefire.

“We don't believe that that benefits anybody except Hamas right now. We do continue to support humanitarian pauses, but not a general ceasefire,” Mr Kirby told reporters.

Mr Blinken met Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Mr Gallant and war cabinet member Benny Gantz.

Mr Blinken carried with him the messages he heard from Arab leaders on what is his fourth trip to the region since October 7 and his fifth trip to Israel.

Antony Blinken speaks of plan to let all aid into Gaza

Antony Blinken speaks of plan to let all aid into Gaza

He told Israeli leaders that normalising relations with more countries in the region remained a possibility but only if the conflict subsided.

“I know your own efforts over many years to build much greater connectivity and integration in the Middle East, and I think there actually are real opportunities there,” Mr Blinken said before his meeting with Mr Katz.

The Secretary told reporters there is “clear interest” among many of the Arab leaders he met with in “pursuing integration of the region”, but that it could not come at the expense of Palestinians.

In an interview to air on NBC News on Wednesday, Mr Blinken said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated that establishing diplomatic ties with Israel remained a possibility, even given what has happened since October.

“There actually is an opportunity that we haven’t seen in the past,” Mr Blinken said. “All of these countries now want a region that’s more integrated.”

When asked if Prince Mohammed told him that normalisation remains a possibility, Mr Blinken said: “That’s correct.”

Mr Blinken's visit to the Middle East comes as the threat of a broader regional conflict escalates.

On Monday, Israel killed a senior Hezbollah commander in a strike in southern Lebanon as it continues to increase attacks on the Lebanese militant group.

Mr Blinken said the leaders of the countries he visited – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece, Jordan and Qatar – shared concerns about the spread of the conflict.

“All of them are committed to using their influence, using the ties that they have to prevent it from escalating, to deter new fronts from opening,” he said.

When asked if the Pentagon agreed with Mr Blinken's assessment of the civilian toll in Gaza, press secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder said Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is engaging with Israel to “encourage them to do everything possible to mitigate civilian harm”.

“No one wants to see innocent civilians killed in this conflict,” Maj Gen Ryder said.

Jihan Abdalla and Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.

Updated: January 10, 2024, 9:35 AM