Blinken warns against Gazans’ displacement; says war may ‘metastasize’ to wider region

US secretary of state meets with Arab leaders in bid to advance talks on Strip’s post-war future; German FM in Israel visit calls for ‘less intensive’ Gaza fighting

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures as he arrives in Abu Dhabi on January 7, 2024. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures as he arrives in Abu Dhabi on January 7, 2024. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured Arab leaders on Sunday that Washington opposes the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, as he looked to kickstart talks on Gaza’s post-war future.

Jordan’s King Abdullah had raised his country’s concerns over displacement with Blinken during their meeting in Amman, according to a palace statement, as Israel pushes on with the military campaign that it launched to eliminate the Hamas terror group in Gaza, after gunmen rampaged through southern communities on October 7, massacring 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 240 hostages to the Strip.

“Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. They cannot, they must not, be pressed to leave Gaza,” Blinken said at a press conference following a separate meeting with top Qatari officials in Doha.

Most of Gaza’s residents have been displaced by the conflict, and violence has also flared in the West Bank. President Isaac Herzog told NBC in an interview that aired Sunday that encouraging mass displacement of Palestinians in the enclave was “totally not the position of the Israeli government,” despite some far-right ministers advocating for such a plan.

King Abdullah told Blinken that Washington had a major role to play in pressuring Israel into an immediate ceasefire, and warned of the “catastrophic repercussions” of the continuation of the war in Gaza.

Hamas-controlled health authorities say that 22,835 have been killed in the fighting, though the figures cannot be independently verified. The figure does not differentiate between civilians and combatants and includes Palestinians killed by errant rocket fire from Gaza. Israel says it has killed 8,500 terrorists since launching the war.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II (center right) receiving US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from left) in Amman on January 7, 2024 in this handout photo. (Jordanian Royal Palace / AFP)

Blinken is touring the region amid heightened fears that Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza will spark a broader regional conflagration.

“This is a moment of profound tension for the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and suffering,” he told reporters in Doha.

The trip comes after an alleged Israeli drone strike in Beirut killed deputy Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouri and Israel exchanged fire with Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah across its northern border with Lebanon. Washington is also rallying allies to deter attacks on Red Sea shipping by Houthi rebels who control most of Yemen.

Blinken arrived in Jordan late on Saturday and met King Abdullah on Sunday before traveling to Qatar for meetings with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who also serves as foreign minister.

In Doha, Blinken said discussions included efforts to free the more than 130 hostages still believed to be held by Hamas after an earlier agreement mediated by Qatar broke down.

Qatar’s prime minister said the killing of Arouri has affected Doha’s ability to mediate between the terror group and Israel.

Blinken also decried the killing of two Al Jazeera journalists in a strike in Gaza as an “unimaginable tragedy.”

“This is an unimaginable tragedy. And that’s also been the case for… far too many innocent Palestinian men, women, and children,” Blinken said of the deaths of Hamza Wael Dahdouh and Mustafa Thuria, announced earlier by the Qatar-based network.

On Sunday night the IDF responded to reports of the deaths of the two Palestinian journalists saying the pair were in a vehicle with a terror operative who was operating a drone when it was struck.

Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands during a press conference following a meeting in Doha on January 7, 2024. (Karim JAAFAR / AFP)

Blinken said he and the Qatari prime minister discussed what each country can do once the conflict is over “to provide the assurances and the incentives required to build a more secure and more stable, more peaceful future for the region.”

“And my takeaway from the discussion so far, including here with our friends in Qatar, is that our partners are willing to have these difficult conversations and to make hard decisions. All of us feel a stake in forging the way forward.”

Washington wants Israel’s Arab neighbors to play a role in reconstruction, governance, and security in Gaza in the expectation that Israel’s assault will remove Hamas, which has run the territory since 2007, officials have said.

The US delegation aims to gather Arab states’ views on the future of Gaza before taking those positions to Israel, the US official said, acknowledging that stances would be far apart.

Blinken was to end the day in the United Arab Emirates.

On a visit to Israel on Sunday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urged Jerusalem to ease its military campaign in Gaza and do more to protect civilians.

Germany has been one of Israel’s most steadfast supporters since the start of the conflict with Hamas, but Baerbock warned that Israel’s security also depended on limiting civilian deaths.

“It is increasingly clear that the Israeli army must do more to protect civilians in Gaza. It must find ways to fight Hamas without harming large numbers of Palestinians,” she said.

“The suffering of many innocent people cannot go on like this. We need less intensive management of operations,” Baerbock said on a visit to Jerusalem.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (left) meets with Foreign Minister Israel Katz in Jerusalem on January 7, 2024. (Rafi Ben Hakoun/Foreign Ministry)

The foreign minister still reaffirmed Germany’s strong support for Israel on her fourth trip to the region since the war erupted.

“Your country can strongly count on our solidarity in the fight against the blind terror that seeks to wipe Israel off the the map,” Baerbock said.

“If Hamas did not fanatically pursue this senseless struggle, the war would have been long finished,” she added.

Humanitarian crisis

In a camp for displaced people in Rafah, southern Gaza, some Palestinians called on Blinken to live up to US calls for a two-state solution to the conflict.

“We hope that it is a visit for our benefit, for peace’s benefit, and for the benefit of establishing a Palestinian state next to a Jewish state, in line with UN resolutions…and with what America has been calling for,” said Moussa al-Atawneh, a 76-year-old displaced man.

In Amman, Blinken visited a World Food Program (WFP) warehouse storing canned food bound for Gaza.

WFP acting country director for Palestine Laura Turner said ahead of a meeting with Blinken that he should push to halt the conflict and for Israel to open border crossings into northern Gaza.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C) visits a World Food Program (WFP) regional warehouse in Amman on January 7, 2024. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

“That’s where the population is that we haven’t been able to access for six weeks and we’re most concerned about,” Turner said, adding that aid sent north from southern Gaza was being seized en route by other Palestinians also in dire need of food.

Blinken said the US was working to keep aid routes into the strip open and to multiply them.

“We are intensely focused on the very difficult and indeed deteriorating food situation for men, women, and children in Gaza, and it’s something we’re working on 24/7,” Blinken said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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