ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Blinken spars with Arab leaders in Amman over ceasefire call, says it’ll help Hamas

Egyptian FM casts Israel’s offensive as collective punishment, not self-defense; Arab envoys reject calls by Washington’s top diplomat to discuss Gaza’s future while war ongoing

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, front left, attends a meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, front left, attends a meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

Arab leaders decrying the mounting civilian death toll in the Israel-Hamas war pushed for an immediate ceasefire Saturday, even as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that such a move would be counterproductive and could encourage more violence by the terror group.

After an afternoon of talks in Amman with Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati diplomats and a senior Palestinian Authority official, Blinken stood side by side at a line of podiums with his counterparts from Jordan and Egypt to discuss what he said was their shared desire to protect civilians in Gaza and improve the flow of aid to the besieged territory.

The dissonance in the messages was evident. Nonetheless, the joint news conference between ministers from the Arab world and the top diplomat from Israel’s closest ally and numerous photo opportunities contrasted with Blinken’s time in Tel Aviv on Friday, when Blinken met alone with reporters after closed-door talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arab ministers repeatedly called for the fighting to stop now and condemned Israel’s war tactics.

Egypt’s Sameh Shoukreh said his country “cannot accept” Israel’s aggressive campaign against Hamas in Gaza as self-defense, calling it “collective punishment” of Palestinians in Gaza. “This cannot be a legitimate self-defense at all,” he said.

Blinken held firm to the US position that a ceasefire would harm Israel’s right and obligation to defend its citizens after the devastating onslaught by Hamas on October 7 across southern Israel. He said the Biden administration’s commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense remains unwavering.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, left, and Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi hold a press conference in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP)

“It is our view now that a ceasefire would simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it did,” Blinken said.

He said the US supports “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s operations to allow for the improved flow of aid and increased transit of foreign nationals out of Gaza and into Egypt. Blinken’s colleagues from Jordan and Egypt did not think that went far enough.

Israel too has appeared to reject Blinken’s push for a humanitarian pause, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserting Friday that Israel would not accept a temporary ceasefire without a return of its hostages in Gaza.

Washington feels that the brief respite that pauses in the fighting allow would give the administration more breathing room to continue supporting Israel’s military operation amid growing backlash abroad and within the Democratic party due to the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza, a senior US official told The Times of Israel on Friday.

In addition, the US thinks that humanitarian pauses would allow Hamas to get a better accounting of where all of the roughly 240 hostages are located, especially since some are held by other terror groups, the official said.

There is a recognition in Washington that a pause in the fighting, no matter how temporary, could allow Hamas to regroup, but the feeling is that the benefits of the move outweigh the risks, the official added.

A main objective of Blinken’s trip to Amman was to rally regional support for Washington’s effort to turn the current crisis into an opportunity to move toward reuniting Gaza and the West Bank in order to advance a two-state solution — something that US allies in the region support.

However, Arab officials said it was far too soon to discuss one of Blinken’s main agenda items, Gaza’s postwar future. Stopping the killing and restoring steady humanitarian aid are immediate concerns that must be addressed first, they said.

“What happens next? How can we even entertain what will happen next?” said Jordan’s Ayman al-Safadi. “We don’t have all the variables to even start thinking about that.” He added, “We need to get our priorities straight.”

But as they appeared before news cameras and reporters, the three men lent at least an appearance of solidarity. Blinken acknowledged Arab concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza and underscored the risk that the war poses to Israel’s standing in neighboring countries with whom it has had diplomatic relations for decades.

Shoukreh and al-Safadi said they agreed to keep working with Blinken and others toward the ultimate goal of ending the war, restoring some sense of normalcy to Gaza and giving the Palestinian people reason to hope for an eventual independent state of their own.

From Beirut, senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan told reporters that Blinken “should stop the aggression and should not come up with ideas that cannot be implemented.” Hamdan said the future of Gaza will be decided by the Palestinians and that Arab foreign ministers should tell the American diplomat that “he cannot build an Arab coalition that is against the Palestinian people.”

Blinken’s first meeting in Jordan was with Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, whose economically and politically ravaged country is home to the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah. The United States has grave concerns that Hezbollah, which has stepped up rocket and cross-border attacks on northern Israel, will take a more active role in the Israel-Hamas war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati at a hotel during a day of meetings in the Jordanian capital Amman on November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP)

Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, on Friday gave his first major speech since Hamas’s massacre but did not forecast his group’s greater involvement even as he professed that Hezbollah was unperturbed by US attempts to deter it.

Blinken thanked Mikati for his leadership “in preventing Lebanon from being pulled into a war that the Lebanese people do not want,” the US State Department said.

Blinken then met with the foreign minister of Qatar, whose country has emerged as the most influential interlocutor with Hamas. Qatar has been key to negotiating the limited release of hostages held by Hamas as well as persuading Hamas to allow foreign citizens to leave Gaza and cross into Egypt.

Blinken also held talks with the head of the UN agency in charge of assisting Palestinian refugees, thanking Phillipe Lazzarini for his group’s “extraordinary work every single day as a lifeline to Palestinians in Gaza at a great, a great cost.” The agency has seen about 70 staffers killed in the war so far and is running critically low on necessary supplies such as food, medicine, and fuel.

Hamas has been hoarding Gaza’s resources to continue its military campaign against Israel, according to evidence provided by the military, which has been confirmed by Western and Arab officials to The New York Times.

Reports have also emerged that the group has stolen humanitarian aid delivered to UNRWA.

Meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Crown Prince Hussein in Amman, Blinken told the pair that the US is committed to working with regional partners in order to establish a Palestinian state, the State Department said.

Blinken also “underscored our shared commitment to the protection of civilians and to facilitating the increased, sustained delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance, the resumption of essential services, and ensuring that Palestinians are not forcibly displaced outside of Gaza,” the State Department said. “Blinken also expressed concern regarding the increasing violence in the West Bank.”

Jordan has recalled its ambassador to Israel and has told Israel’s envoy not to return to Jordan until the Gaza crisis is over.

On Sunday, Blinken will travel to Turkey for meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials, the State Department said. Turkey on Saturday followed Jordan’s lead and announced it had recalled its ambassador to Israel.

Arab states are resisting American suggestions that they play a larger role in the Mideast crisis, expressing outrage at the civilian toll of the Israeli military operations but believing Gaza to be a problem largely of Israel’s own making.

Huge plumes of smoke rise over the city of Khan Younis, as seen from the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 4, 2023, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Said Khatib/AFP)

But US officials believe Arab backing, no matter how modest, will be critical to efforts to ease the worsening conditions in Gaza and lay the groundwork for what would replace Hamas as the territory’s governing authority, if and when Israel succeeds in eradicating the terror group.

Still, ideas on Gaza’s future governance are few and far between. Blinken and other US officials are offering a vague outline that it might include a combination of a revitalized Palestinian Authority, which has not been a factor in Gaza since Hamas ousted it in a bloody coup in 2007, with international organizations and potentially a peacekeeping force. US officials acknowledge these ideas have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Israel launched its war against Hamas on October 7, after the terror group carried out a shock onslaught in southern Israel, killing some 1,400 people and taking over 240 hostages.

The vast majority of those killed that day were civilians, many of them slaughtered in their homes. In response to the killings, Israel vowed to eradicate the terror group and destroy its infrastructure and has since hit thousands of Hamas targets inside the Strip with airstrikes and an ongoing ground operation.

Israel says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has accused Israel of killing more than 9,400 people, most of them civilians. The numbers cannot be verified by external sources, and Hamas is believed to be including its own members in the toll, as well as those killed by failed rocket launches from within the enclave.

Hundreds of thousands of Gazans from the Strip’s north have moved to the south as Israel has warned of its intensifying offensive on the Gaza City area. The UN and international actors have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe and have called on Israel to greatly increase the aid allowed into the Strip via Egypt’s Rafah crossing.

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