ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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US says it will back Israel militarily when fighting resumes

Blinken said to warn war cabinet Israel may not have months to topple Hamas

US diplomat says Israel must change way it is fighting, set up safe zones, avoid hospitals, UN facilities: ‘Massive loss of civilian life’ in north Gaza must not be repeated in south

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Nov. 30, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Nov. 30, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Israel’s war cabinet on Thursday that it likely doesn’t have months to wage war against Hamas in Gaza, as domestic and international pressure mounts on US President Joe Biden’s administration to draw an end to the fighting, an Israeli official said.

The warning was one of several issued by the top US diplomat during his meeting with the war cabinet and in separate sit-downs with top officials. At a press conference, he also publicly cautioned Israel at considerable length against allowing the same scale of death and displacement in southern Gaza once fighting shifts there from northern Gaza.

During Thursday’s war cabinet meeting, ministers reportedly pushed back on some of Blinken’s concerns regarding how Israel has prosecuted the campaign, saying that the IDF follows the laws of war and has taken steps to avoid civilian casualties.

At one point in the meeting, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant noted that the Israeli public is united behind the goal of dismantling Hamas, even if it takes months, the Israeli official said.

Blinken responded that he wasn’t sure if Israel would have the international backing to continue fighting for so long at the same intensity that was seen before the war was temporarily paused in a truce deal last Friday, according to the official.

According to a report carried by Channel 12 news, the secretary’s timeline gave Israel “weeks” to be able to continue fighting at the current pace.

Blinken’s reported and public comments reflected growing unease in the US with the way Israel has carried out the war, which has resulted in scenes of widespread devastation in parts of the enclave and fears of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, with large numbers of Gazans left homeless, hungry and exposed to disease.

During his press conference Thursday night recapping his meetings in Israel, the secretary said he told Israel’s leaders that they would need to change the way they are fighting.

“I underscored the imperative — for the United States — that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in northern Gaza, not be repeated in the South,” Blinken said.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak to reporters prior to a meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

Blinken said he told Israeli leaders that the IDF must prepare for how it will keep civilians safe before resuming its military campaign, including setting up safe zones.

“I made clear that before Israel resumes major military operations, it must put in place humanitarian, civilian protection plans that minimize further casualties of innocent Palestinians,” he said. “That means taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians, including by clearly and precisely designating areas and places in southern and central Gaza where they can be safe and out of the line of fire.”

He also said Israel must avoid further mass displacement of Palestinians; avoid the targeting of “life-critical infrastructure like hospitals, like power stations, like water facilities”; and allow the eventual return of displaced Palestinians to northern Gaza. “There must be no enduring internal displacement,” he said.

Each of these points had been made by US officials speaking on condition of anonymity in recent weeks, but it appeared to be the first time they were stated on-the-record in the latest demonstration of the administration kicking up its pressure on Israel.

Faced with the knotty problem of defeating Hamas from the crowded Palestinian enclave where it is heavily entrenched, Israeli military planners have split the Strip in two, sending civilians south while concentrating its campaign in the north, with apparent plans to later move civilians north and repeat the process in southern Gaza.

Senior Israeli military officers say the IDF’s tactics in northern Gaza involved encouraging noncombatants for weeks to evacuate, and then bombarding targeted areas heavily from the air, before ground forces moved through building by building. This left immense devastation, they acknowledge, but was necessary to address concerns that almost every building was booby-trapped and contained shafts leading to underground tunnels from which Hamas gunmen were emerging or poised to emerge.

The IDF has been considering more surgical use of ground forces in parts of southern Gaza, but also believes utilizing the northern Gaza approach when tackling Hamas strongholds in the south could be crucial in avoiding large-scale IDF casualties.

“The way Israel defends itself matters,” Blinken said at his press conference. Israel must act in accordance with “humanitarian law and the laws of war, even when confronting a terrorist group that respects neither.”

All of this can be done while enabling Israel to achieve its objectives, he asserted, though he acknowledged that the challenge is complicated because “Hamas intentionally embeds within civilians — within and below hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, refugee camps.”

Still, he argued, Israel’s sophisticated military “is capable of neutralizing the threat posed by Hamas, while minimizing harm to innocent men, women and children. And it has an obligation to do so.”

Blinken added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the war cabinet agreed with the approach pushed by the US to avoid civilian casualties.

Israeli forces at a staging area near the border with Gaza on November 30, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Blinken said a massive acceleration in the delivery of humanitarian aid is also needed in order to prevent the crisis from further deteriorating, while noting that the quantity of aid entering the Strip is up “significantly.”

Blinken pointed out that Hamas, too, has choices: “Hamas could lay down its arms, surrender the leaders who are responsible for the slaughter, the torture, the rapes of October 7. Hamas could renounce its stated goal of eliminating Israel, killing Jews and repeating the atrocities of October 7, again and again and again.”

Everyone around the world who cares about protecting innocent lives, said Blinken, should be “demanding of Hamas that it immediately stop its murderous acts of terror and deplorable use of innocent men, women and children as human shields.”

Doesn’t want ceasefire; does want truce extended

The trip to Israel was Blinken’s fourth since October 7, when war broke out following a Hamas attack in which 3,000 terrorists infiltrated southern Israeli communities, massacring 1,200 people — mostly civilians slaughtered in their homes and at a music festival — and taking some 240 hostages.

Aside from the war cabinet summit, Blinken also held separate meetings with Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, Gallant, war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

The meetings came on the last day of a twice-extended week-long truce championed by Blinken to allow for the release of hostages and for humanitarian aid to get to more parts of the beleaguered enclave.

While the US does not back a permanent ceasefire, it has urged the breather to continue — to get more hostages out and more aid in.

Biden has come under significant pressure from the far-left flank of the Democratic Party and US allies in the Mideast and beyond to take a harder stance on Israel due to the high death toll in Gaza. The Hamas-run health ministry says over 15,000 have died, though those numbers cannot be verified, do not differentiate between civilians and combatants, and include Palestinians killed by errant rocket fire from within Gaza.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Israel’s cabinet on November 30, 2023. (Screen capture/X)

In Washington, the White House made clear that it will support Israel militarily whenever Jerusalem decides to resume the IDF’s operation in Gaza.

“We continue to believe that Israel has a right and responsibility to go after Hamas. They have said very clearly that when these pauses are over, they intend to go back at it. As they make that decision, they’ll continue to find support from the United States in terms of the tools and capabilities, the weapons systems that they need as well as the advice and the perspectives that we can offer in terms of urban warfare,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said during a separate briefing on Thursday.

Kirby clarified that the US supports additional extensions to the ongoing humanitarian pause, with negotiations ongoing through Thursday for another extension. Like Blinken, he highlighted that the pause allows for the exit of hostages from the Strip and the entry of more aid into the enclave.

However, Kirby said the US does not back a permanent ceasefire, which Washington and Israel say would allow the threat posed by Hamas to remain.

Palestinians pray over bodies of people killed in the Israel-Hamas war before burial in the town of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, November 22, 2023. (AP/Mohammed Dahman)

In addition to sharpening his rhetoric regarding the need to protect civilians in Gaza, Blinken said he also discussed the need to plan for who will govern Gaza after the war.

The US is pushing for a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority to eventually govern a reunited Gaza and West Bank, though Netanyahu has all but rejected this proposal.

Blinken said Ramallah would have to undergo reforms, rid itself of corruption and promote a free press to be “revitalized.”

The day after

During the war cabinet meeting, Blinken reportedly confronted Netanyahu to propose alternatives to PA rule rather than just dismissing what much of the international community believes is the only realistic option for a post-war Gaza.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, right and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands during a meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

“The best way to kill an idea is to bring a better idea. The other countries in the region need to know what you are planning,” Blinken told Netanyahu in comments leaked to Channel 12.

There was a moment of silence in the room before Netanyahu responded, “As long as I’m sitting in this chair, the Palestinian Authority, which supports, educates and finances terror, will not rule Gaza the day after Hamas [is toppled].”

During his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken again raised the need for Israel to take “immediate steps to hold settler extremists accountable for violence against Palestinians in the West Bank,” according to the US readout. Earlier this month, Biden threatened to issue visa bans against violent settlers whose attacks, rights groups say, have led roughly 1,000 Palestinians to flee their lands.

Blinken told reporters he raised Washington’s “deep concerns” about the uptick in extremist settler violence in addition to proposals from several hardline ministers to further expand settlements in the West Bank.

“I made clear our expectations about addressing these issues,” he said.

He called for steps towards “improving the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in immediate, tangible ways,” adding that they should be provided with a credible path toward statehood.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the latter’s office in Jerusalem on November 30, 2023. (GPO)

A statement from Netanyahu’s office made no mention of settler violence or a two-state solution, but instead highlighted a deadly terror attack hours earlier in which two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on commuters at the entrance to Jerusalem, leaving four dead. Hamas claimed the attack.

“This is the same Hamas that carried out the terrible massacre on Oct. 7, the same Hamas that tries to murder us everywhere. I told him: We swore, and I swore, to eliminate Hamas. Nothing will stop us,” the statement read.

“We will continue this war until we achieve the three goals — to release all our hostages, to eliminate Hamas completely, and to ensure that Gaza will never again face such a threat,” Netanyahu said.

Meeting Mahmoud Abbas

Blinken also condemned settler violence during a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank Thursday.

Blinken told Abbas that the US “would continue to insist on full accountability for those responsible” for violence against Palestinians, which has increased significantly since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, according to a State Department readout.

The pair discussed the “urgent need for measures to improve the security and freedom of Palestinians in the West Bank” during a meeting in Ramallah, the US said.

Blinken also raised US efforts to accelerate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

According to the PA’s official Wafa news agency, Abbas emphasized the need to reach a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, spare civilians from bombardments and increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the Strip.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

Abbas also handed Blinken a “comprehensive file documenting Israeli occupation crimes in Gaza, and the West Bank, including Jerusalem,” Wafa said.

Blinken will close out his latest Mideast tour in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, where he will discuss the Gaza situation with Arab leaders gathered in Dubai for the COP28 climate change conference.

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