On his first visit to Israel as secretary of state, top United States diplomat Antony Blinken affirmed on Tuesday President Joe Biden’s “personal” commitment to Israel’s security and said the US would take a lead role in the “urgent humanitarian reconstruction in Gaza” to ensure a better future for all sides.
“Leaders on both sides” need to take steps “to set a better course for their shared future,” he said, speaking to the press alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Blinken’s meeting with Netanyahu launched a regional tour that saw him head to Ramallah Tuesday afternoon for meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and then to Jordan and Egypt in a bid to shore up last week’s Israel-Gaza ceasefire and launch the reconstruction effort.
“President Biden asked me to come here today really for four reasons,” Blinken said. “First, to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security; to start to work toward greater stability and reduced tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem”; to support “urgent humanitarian reconstruction assistance in Gaza”; and to “continue to rebuild our relationship with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority.”
After the intense diplomacy led by Biden, together with Netanyahu, helped produce the ceasefire last Friday, “now we believe we must build on it,” he said. “Losses on both sides were profound,” and “as the Talmud teaches, to lose a life is to lose the whole world, whether that life is Palestinian or Israeli.”
The latest military confrontation with Hamas ended in a ceasefire early Friday, leaving over 240 dead in Gaza and 13 dead in Israel. It began on May 10 when Hamas launched a massive rocket barrage on Israeli cities, sparking IDF retaliatory strikes and 11 days of fighting.
Over 4,000 rockets were fired at Israeli cities, according to the IDF, sending civilians throughout the center and south of the country rushing to bomb shelters at all hours of day and night.
In Gaza, Israeli airstrikes toppled high-rises, smashed a major thoroughfare in Gaza City’s downtown and left people, including children, screaming for help from under the rubble.
Hamas’s public works ministry said 258 buildings — around 1,042 residential and commercial units — were destroyed during the fighting. Another 769 units were severely damaged, rendering them uninhabitable, and 14,536 suffered minor damage. Seventeen hospitals were damaged, as well as 53 schools.
Over 100,000 people were internally displaced during the hostilities, according to the UN. While many have since been able to return to their dwellings, others have been left homeless.
The Israeli military says it does not target civilian structures and takes pains to minimize harm to noncombatants. It maintains it is forced to operate in civilian areas because Palestinian terror groups fire rockets at Israel from inside Gaza’s densely packed cities.
Blinken emphasized that the US fully supported Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks — “such as the thousands of rockets fired by Hamas indiscriminately against Israeli civilians… For the president… this commitment is personal; it runs deep.”
He added: “We’ll continue to strengthen all aspects of our longstanding partnership, and that includes consulting closely with Israel, as we did today, on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna around a potential return to the Iran nuclear agreement, at the same time as we continue to work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.”
He then spoke at length about the planned reconstruction effort in Gaza.
“We know that to prevent a return to violence we have to use the space created [by the ceasefire] to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges, and that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild.”
He said the US would announce a “significant contribution” to rehabilitating Gaza later Tuesday — likely during his meeting in Ramallah with PA President Abbas — and would work with its partners “to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from the reconstruction assistance.”
“At the same time, we need to work to expand opportunity for Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank, including by strengthening the private sector, expanding trade and investment, and other means,” he said. “Assistance and investments like these will help foster a more stable environment that benefits Palestinians and also benefits Israelis.”
In a separate meeting, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Blinken that reaching a long-term calm would have to involve the return of Israeli captives in Gaza — including the remains of two soldiers — and the bolstering of the PA by “damaging the military power of Gazan terror groups,” according to a statement from Gantz’s office.
Blinken also met with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to discuss the establishment of a mechanism meant to oversee Gazan reconstruction.
A very important meeting with @SecBlinken & his team.
we discussed the aftermath of operation "Guardian of the Walls" & the importance of our relations with the #US.
We spoke in detail about regional issues & the importance of strengthening & expanding the circle of peace. pic.twitter.com/FWnBuMiubE
— גבי אשכנזי – Gabi Ashkenazi (@Gabi_Ashkenazi) May 25, 2021
“The rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip cannot occur without a joint mechanism for supervision and enforcement that will prevent the strengthening of the Hamas terrorist organization,” Ashkenazi’s office said in a statement.
The Foreign Ministry said working groups would be set up “with the goal of implementing civilian projects in Judea and Samaria,” the term Israel uses for the West Bank, “while simultaneously setting out demands of the Palestinians, including ceasing petitions to international institutions and stopping incitement.”
Blinken earlier said he spoke with Netanyahu about “other steps that need to be taken by leaders on both sides to set a better course for their shared future.”
Quoting Biden, he said, “We believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and democracy, to be treated with dignity.”
He also addressed the “intercommunal violence” that erupted in Israel during the conflict, saying that “healing these wounds will take leadership at every level… We very much welcome the statements the prime minister made… condemning the attacks regardless of who they targeted.”
In the US, Blinken said, there has been a “shocking eruption of antisemitic attacks.” Again quoting Biden, he called the attacks “despicable” and said they must stop.
“There is a lot of hard work ahead to restore hope, respect and some trust across communities,” he concluded, but having seen the “alternative,” it was clear “all of us [must] redouble our efforts to preserve the peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
‘Biden is right’
Netanyahu, speaking just before Blinken, thanked the American administration for its “firm support for Israel’s right to self-defense.”
He warned that “if Hamas breaks the calm and attacks Israel, our response will be very powerful,” and he told reporters that he and Blinken had “discussed ways to work together to prevent Hamas rearmament.”
Netanyahu reiterated his longstanding position on the Iran deal: “I hope that the United States will not go back to the old JCPOA. We believe that that  deal paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy.
“Whatever happens,” he added, “Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against a regime committed to our destruction, committed to getting the weapons of mass destruction for that end.”
Gantz’s office noted that he and Blinken discussed Israel security needs, including thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.
Netanyahu also called for Israel and the US to work together to expand normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world.
He said he’d discussed with Blinken ways “to improve the lives and conditions of the Palestinians — the humanitarian conditions in Gaza — including the question of the return of our MIAs and two civilians… as well as building economic growth for Judea, Samaria — the West Bank — with international cooperation and participation.”
And he praised Biden’s call last week for Palestinians to recognize Israel.
“President Biden was absolutely correct when he said ‘you’re not going to get peace until Israel is recognized as an independent Jewish state.’ That is the key — I couldn’t agree more with President Biden.”
After Blinken’s comments, Netanyahu took a moment to thank Biden for his condemnation of a wave of antisemitic attacks in the United States during the Israel-Hamas fighting.
“Thank you and the president for your strong statements against antisemitism,” he said. It was “masquerading as anti-Zionism but it’s antisemitism and you took a bold position, a clear position, and we appreciate it. I think all decent people everywhere appreciate that stance.”