US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday he has asked Israel for any evidence of Hamas operating in a Gaza building housing news bureaus that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike over the weekend. He said he himself hasn’t seen any yet.
Blinken spoke at a news conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, as pressure is increasing on the Biden administration to ask for a ceasefire in conflict between Israel and terror groups in Gaza.
Israel on Saturday destroyed a building housing the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera, and said that Hamas used the building for a military intelligence office and weapons development. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the building a “perfectly legitimate target” and told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that Israel passes such evidence through intelligence channels.
“Shortly after the strike we did request additional details regarding the justification for it,” Blinken said Monday.
He declined to discuss specific intelligence, saying he “will leave it to others to characterize if any information has been shared and our assessment that information.”
But he said, “I have not seen any information provided.”
Blinken’s comments came after UN Security Council diplomats and Muslim foreign ministers convened emergency weekend meetings to demand a stop to civilian bloodshed, after nearly a week of Hamas rocket barrages on Israel and massive retaliatory strikes by Israeli warplanes.
The Associated Press’s top editor on Sunday called for an independent investigation into the airstrike, saying the public deserves to know the facts.
Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor, said the Israeli government has yet to provide clear evidence supporting its attack, which leveled the 12-story Al Jala tower.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Israel was compiling evidence for the US, but did not confirm when it would be ready.
“We’re in the middle of fighting,” Conricus said Sunday, adding that he is “sure in due time that information will be presented.”
Buzbee said the AP has had offices in the building for 15 years and was never informed or had any indication that Hamas might be in the building.
A report in The Atlantic in 2014 claimed that Hamas members had repeatedly burst into the AP’s offices in the building and threatened staff, actions it asserted went unreported.
The IDF accused Hamas of “hiding behind” the offices of the press outlets in the tower and “using them as human shields.”
“The Hamas terror group intentionally locates its military assets in the hearts of civil populations in the Gaza Strip,” the IDF said.
“We are in a conflict situation,” Buzbee said. “We do not take sides in that conflict.”
“We think it’s appropriate at this point for there to be an independent look at what happened yesterday — an independent investigation,” Buzbee added.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told an emergency high-level meeting of the Security Council that the United States was “working tirelessly through diplomatic channels” to stop the fighting.
As battles between Israel and Gaza’s terrorist Hamas rulers surged to their worst levels since 2014 and the international outcry grew, the Biden administration — determined to wrench US foreign policy focus away from the Middle East and Afghanistan — has declined so far to criticize Israel’s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region. Appeals by other countries showed no sign of progress.
Thomas-Greenfield warned that the return to armed conflict would only put a negotiated two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict even further out of reach. However, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, has so far blocked days of efforts by China, Norway and Tunisia to get the Security Council to issue a statement, including a call for the cessation of hostilities.
The draft Security Council statement blocked by the US made no explicit mention of Hamas rocket fire in Gaza. The Times of Israel obtained a copy of the draft statement early Wednesday morning. It expressed the council’s “grave concern regarding the crisis related to Gaza and the loss of civilian lives and casualties, and called for de-escalation of the situation, cessation of violence and respect for international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians, especially children.”
In Israel, Hady Amr, a deputy assistant dispatched by Blinken to try to de-escalate the crisis, met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who thanked the US for its support.
Blinken himself headed out on an unrelated tour of Nordic countries, with no announced plans to stop in the Middle East in response to the crisis. He made calls from the plane to Egypt and other nations working to broker a ceasefire, telling Egypt that all parties “should de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, urged Biden on Sunday to step up pressure on both sides to end current fighting and revive talks to resolve Israel’s conflicts and flashpoints with the Palestinians.
“I think the administration needs to push harder on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence, bring about a ceasefire, end these hostilities, and get back to a process of trying to resolve this long-standing conflict,” Schiff, a California Democrat, told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
And Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, the senior Republican on the foreign relations subcommittee for the region, joined Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, the subcommittee chairman, in asking both sides to cease fire. “As a result of Hamas’s rocket attacks and Israel’s response, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further,” the two said.
Biden focused on civilian deaths from Hamas rockets in a call with Netanyahu on Saturday, and a White House readout of the call made no mention of the US urging Israel to join in a ceasefire that regional countries were pushing. Thomas-Greenfield said US diplomats were engaging with Israel, Egypt and Qatar, along with the UN.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City flattened three buildings and killed at least 42 people Sunday, medics said, bringing the toll since Hamas and Israel opened their air and artillery battles to at least 188 killed in Gaza and eight in Israel. Some 55 children in Gaza and a 5-year-old boy in Israel were among the dead.
Israel says many of those killed were terror operatives, as well as asserting that some of the slain civilians were killed by failed rocket launches by Gaza terrorists.
Netanyahu told Israelis in a televised address Sunday that Israel “wants to levy a heavy price” on Hamas. That will “take time,” Netanyahu said, signaling the war would rage on for now.
Representatives of Muslim nations met Sunday to demand Israel halt attacks that are killing Palestinian civilians in the crowded Strip.
The meeting of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation also saw Turkey and some others criticize a US-backed push under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Islamic nations signed bilateral deals with Israel to normalize their relations, stepping over the wreckage of collapsed international efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians long-term.
“The massacre of Palestinian children today follows the purported normalization,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.
At the virtual meeting of the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations was actively engaging all parties for an immediate ceasefire.
Returning to the scenes of Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes in the fourth such war between Israel and Hamas “only perpetuates the cycles of death, destruction and despair, and pushes farther to the horizon any hopes of coexistence and peace,” Guterres said.
Israel has struck hundreds of buildings in the Gaza Strip, including several high-rises in response to the rocket attacks since last Monday. The military maintains that the targets it struck all housed assets of Hamas or other terror groups.
Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired over 3,000 rockets toward Israel since the outbreak of fighting last Monday, according to the Israel Defense Forces.