Blinken: Protecting civilians must be ‘job number one’ for Israel in Gaza

Top US diplomat says protection, assistance must be 1st priority, even as Israel defends itself from ‘threat posed by Hamas’; Israel set to ‘flood’ Gaza with aid from multiple points

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department, Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department, Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Protecting and aiding civilians must be “job number one” for Israel in the war-battered Gaza Strip, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” Blinken told reporters after a virtual meeting with ministers on a new maritime corridor for aid into Gaza.

“We look to the government of Israel to make sure this is a priority. Protecting civilians, getting people the assistance they need — that has to be job number one, even as they do what is necessary to defend the country and to deal with the threat posed by Hamas,” Blinken said.

Blinken spoke with his counterparts from Britain, Cyprus, the European Union, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on an initiative announced last week for the US military to build a temporary pier in the Mediterranean to bring in aid. US army vessels departed a base in Virginia on Tuesday, carrying about 100 soldiers and equipment they will need to build the temporary port on Gaza’s coast.

When operational, the pier will bring in up to two million meals a day into the Gaza Strip, where the United Nations has warned of the risk of famine, Blinken said.

The US has also been warning Israel against a ground offensive in the southernmost city of Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold, unless it has a plan to protect civilians.

Displaced Palestinians collect food donated by a charity before an iftar meal, on the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, on March 11, 2024. (AFP)

The IDF said Wednesday it plans to direct a significant portion of the 1.4 million displaced Gazans in Rafah toward “humanitarian islands” in the center of the territory, ahead of a planned operation against the Hamas terror group in the Gazan city.

Blinken said Wednesday that Israel needs to open as many land crossings into Gaza as possible, noting that shipments into northern Gaza began this week through a crossing known as the 96th gate, a military road used by the IDF that runs along the Gaza border fence and also reaches the Gazan coast.

The US military has also dropped meals into the Strip from aircraft in joint operations with Jordan, Egypt, and others.

“I want to emphasize it is a complement to, not a substitute for, other ways of getting humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and in particular overland routes remain the most critical way to get assistance in and then to people who need it, but this will help close the gap,” Blinken said.

US Army soldiers load an AC unit aboard the USAV Monterey at the pier of the Joint Base Langley-Eustis during a media preview of the 7th Transportation Brigade deployment in Hampton, Virginia, on March 12, 2024. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP)

But Blinken took a step away from EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, whom he met earlier in the day and who said Tuesday at the United Nations that Israel was using food as a “war arm.”

“Of course the Israelis have been not only allowing food in, they have been working to make sure that it gets in and gets to people who need it,” Blinken said, pointing to Israeli humanitarian decisions made after pressure from the United States.

“The bottom line is we need to see… flooding the zone when it comes to humanitarian assistance for Gaza,” Blinken said.

‘Flood’ Gaza with aid

Meanwhile, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told foreign reporters at a press briefing late Wednesday that Israel will try to “flood” the Gaza Strip with humanitarian aid from a variety of entry points.

“We are trying to flood the area, to flood it with humanitarian aid,” Hagari said.

Earlier today, the military announced that six aid trucks with supplies from the World Food Programme (WFP) had entered the northern part of the Gaza Strip, where the hunger crisis has been especially acute, through the 96th gate.

A UN aid convoy enters north Gaza via a new military road used by the IDF along the Gaza border, March 11, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

More such convoys will follow, as well as deliveries from other entry points, complemented by airdrops and seaborne aid cargoes, Hagari said.

“We are learning and improving and doing different changes so as not to create a routine but to create a diversity of ways that we can enter,” he said.

Hagari acknowledged, however, that getting supplies into the enclave is only one part of the problem and more is needed to be done to solve the problem of how to distribute it fairly and efficiently to desperately needy people.

“The problem inside Gaza is the distribution problem,” he said.

According to a report Wednesday by Israeli public broadcaster Kan, the six trucks that entered northern Gaza were looted by locals and did not reach their final destination.

The convoy was carrying food and supplies for 25,000, WFP spokesperson Shaza Moghraby said Tuesday.

The report suggested Israel would continue to facilitate aid deliveries even if they are looted.

Efforts for a truce

In his briefing Wednesday, Blinken again called for a truce that would halt fighting for weeks in exchange for the release of hostages seized during the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, when terrorists killed 1,200 and took 253 hostages.

He said Washington continues to push for a deal and is “intensely engaged every single day, every single hour to achieve a ceasefire.”

There is a “strong proposal on the table right now for a [temporary] ceasefire,” he said, “and the question is whether Hamas will take it.”

A Palestinian man checks a pool of blood at an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, following an Israeli airstrike on March 13, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The top diplomat also said the United States was waiting for more facts before commenting on what the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said was an Israeli strike Wednesday on one of its food distribution centers in Gaza.

The IDF said that the strike on an UNRWA facility in Rafah was a successful operation to kill a Hamas commander.

Hamas claimed that five people were killed in the strike, and UNRWA said that at least one of its staff members was killed.

The IDF said that Muhammad Abu Hasna, a commander in the terror group’s operations unit, was eliminated in the strike. According to a joint statement from the IDF and the Shin Bet, Abu Hasna was involved in seizing humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip and distributing it to Hamas operatives.

Israel has accused at least a dozen UNRWA staffers of being active Hamas members involved in the October 7 massacre, and many others of being tied to the terror group, leading many countries to freeze aid to the UN agency.

Blinken said that Hamas fires from civilian sites but “the Israeli military [and] Israeli government have a responsibility and obligation to do everything possible to ensure that the humanitarians can do their jobs.”

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