Biden says Hamas using innocent Gazans as human shields; phones Netanyahu, PA’s Abbas

In talks with Israeli, Palestinian leaders, US president notes need to protect civilians, allow humanitarian aid; Blinken meets host of Arab officials in push to avert escalation

US President Joe Biden speaks at the 2023 Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, October 14, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US President Joe Biden speaks at the 2023 Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, October 14, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — US President Joe Biden spoke Saturday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, urging them to allow humanitarian aid to the region and affirming his support for efforts to protect civilians.

Meanwhile, Biden accused the Hamas terror group of using Palestinian civilians to shield themselves from Israeli retaliation.

Addressing a Human Rights Campaign dinner Saturday in Washington, Biden linked the humanitarian crisis in Gaza to the actions of Hamas, the terror group that has controlled the Strip since it took over in a bloody coup against Abbas’s PA in 2007, after Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from the entire enclave to the pre-1967 lines in 2005.

“A week ago we saw hate manifest another way in the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Biden said, citing the 1,300 lives lost in Israel in massacres of civilians committed by Hamas terrorists, as well as “children, grandparents alike kidnapped, held hostage by Hamas.”

“The humanitarian crisis in Gaza — innocent Palestinian families and the vast majority that have nothing to do with Hamas — they’re being used as human shields,” he said. “We have to reject hate in every form.”

While Biden has spoken to Netanyahu multiple times since the Hamas attack, Saturday’s call was his first to Abbas, a Hamas rival who runs the Palestinian Authority which controls the West Bank. According to a US readout of the call, Abbas briefed the US president on efforts to bring aid to Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza.

Biden reiterated to Abbas that “Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination,” according to the readout.

According to the PA-run WAFA news agency, Abbas stressed to Biden “the necessity of stopping all attacks and respecting international humanitarian law” in Gaza.

Abbas also called for allowing “humanitarian corridors” from Gaza to deliver water, electricity, fuel and medical supplies.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Joe Biden shake hands in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In their fifth phone call since the war broke out, Biden spoke with Netanyahu to “reiterate unwavering US support for Israel,” according to the US readout. He briefed the Israeli leader on regional efforts to ensure civilian access to food, water and medical care.

Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister thanked Biden for the deep US support, as well as the recent visits of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

The two agreed to continue to be in touch, the Israeli readout added.

US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The number of US citizens killed rose to 29, US officials said Saturday, and 15 were unaccounted for, as well as one lawful permanent resident.

Later Saturday, Austin announced that the country was moving up a second aircraft carrier strike group in support of Israel and to deter Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group from joining the fighting. Blinken intensified diplomatic outreach across the Middle East and beyond to rally an international response to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from expanding.

The broad US efforts reflect the international concern about the number of civilians at risk and the potential ramifications of a prolonged war as Israel told northern Gaza residents to move south and Hamas urged people to remain in their homes and allegedly prevented them from evacuating in some cases. The Biden administration has not publicly urged Israel to restrain its response after the murderous Hamas onslaught a week ago, but has emphasized the country’s commitment to following the rules of war.

Blinken met with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh before stopping in the United Arab Emirates as he sought ways to help civilians trapped in between the fighting and to address the growing humanitarian crisis.

He also called his Chinese counterpart as Palestinians scrambled to flee from areas of Gaza targeted by the Israeli military before an expected major ground offensive.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, tours the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue at the Abrahamic Family House, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Austin also spoke Saturday with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, stressing the importance of safeguarding civilians. Austin offered updates on US efforts to boost air defense capabilities and munitions for Israeli forces that he noted were aimed at stemming escalation of war, according to a US readout of the call.

Austin said the Biden administration was sending the additional carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean. The Eisenhower will join the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group, which is already sailing near Israel, to bolster US presence there with a host of destroyers, fighter aircraft and cruisers.

In a statement announcing the deployment, Austin said sending the second carrier was “part of our effort to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war following Hamas’s attack on Israel.”

Blinken, in his visits with Saudi and UAE leaders, also cited the need for humanitarian assistance and safe passage for those who wish to leave Gaza as he spoke to Arab audiences from their home turf, where his hosts put that issue at the top of their concerns.

Egyptian officials said Saturday the southern Rafah crossing would open for the first time in days to allow foreigners out. Israel has advised all Palestinian civilians to flee south to avoid Israel’s continued offensive against Hamas terrorists in Gaza City.

Blinken also called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to seek his country’s help in preventing the war from spreading, asking Beijing to use whatever influence it has in the Middle East. Blinken’s spokesman declined to characterize Wang’s response but said the US believes it and China have a shared interest in the region’s stability.

Israeli soldiers walk past houses destroyed by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, October 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In Riyadh, Blinken and Prince Faisal stressed the importance of minimizing the harm to civilians.

“As Israel pursues its legitimate right, to defending its people and to trying to ensure that this never happens again, it is vitally important that all of us look out for civilians, and we’re working together to do exactly that,” Blinken said.

“None of us want to see suffering by civilians on any side, whether it’s in Israel, whether it’s in Gaza, whether it’s anywhere else,” Blinken said.

The Saudi minister — whose country has reportedly frozen advanced efforts to normalize ties with Israel amid the war — said the kingdom was committed to the protection of civilians.

“It’s a disturbing situation,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation. And, as you know, the primary sufferer of this situation are civilians, and civilian populations on both sides are being affected and it’s important, I think, that we all condemn the targeting of civilians in any form at any time by anyone.”

A US official said Saturday that Washington did not ask Israel to slow or hold off on the evacuation plan. The official said the discussions with Israeli leaders did stress the importance of taking into account the safety of civilians as Israel’s military moved to enforce the evacuation demand.

The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israeli leaders acknowledged the guidance and took it under advisement.

The US worked out an agreement to allow Americans and other foreigners in Gaza to cross the Rafah border into Egypt, but the crossing remained blocked Saturday, with no sign that those gathered would be allowed through. There are an estimated 500 Americans living in Gaza, but that number is imprecise, officials have said.

The US State Department on Saturday authorized the departure of nonemergency US government personnel and their family members from the American Embassy in Jerusalem and an office in Tel Aviv.

A tile signed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is displayed on the intention wall at the Abrahamic Family House, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 14, 2023. Blinken wrote “Light in the darkness” on the tile before placing it on the wall. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Prince Faisal said it was imperative for the violence between Israel and Hamas to end.

“We need to work together to find a way out of this cycle of violence,” he said. “Without a concerted effort to end this constant return to violence, it will always be the civilians that suffer first, it will always be civilians on both sides that end up paying the price.”

While in Abu Dhabi, Blinken visited the Abrahamic Family House, a complex consisting of a church, a mosque and a synagogue representing the three Abrahamic faiths. He signed a tile with the words “Light in the Darkness.”

Blinken returned to Saudi Arabia ahead of an expected stop in Egypt on Sunday. He has already visited Israel, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain.

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