ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Don’t ‘dehumanize others’: Full text of Blinken’s presser on 7th wartime Israel visit

Most people in Gaza ‘are just like our families,’ secretary tells Israel in stinging critique; says Israel can fully integrate into region if it agrees to advance Palestinian state

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2024. (US Department of State/AFP)

The following is a transcript of a press conference held by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on February 7, 2024:

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good evening. This is my fifth visit to the region and seventh visit to Israel since October 7th. I’m back first and foremost to consult directly with our partners on the joint efforts to bring all of the remaining hostages home. I’ve met with families of the hostages multiple times during prior visits, as well as in Washington, and I expect to see them again tomorrow.

The sheer agony – not knowing the fate of your loved one – it’s almost unimaginable. And I know that that pain is almost unbearable. So we have been intensely focused from day one on getting the hostages – all the hostages – back with their families where they belong. And we will keep that focus until we get them back.

We had an opportunity today to discuss with the Israeli Government the response that Hamas sent last night to the proposal that the United States, Qatar, and Egypt had put together to bring the remaining hostages home, and extend the humanitarian pause. What I can tell you about these discussions is that while there are some clear nonstarters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached. And we will work at that relentlessly until we get there.

We had extensive discussions with the prime minister and national security leaders on the status of the military campaign to defeat Hamas, and on the progress toward achieving the fundamental objective of ensuring that October 7th never happens again. At the same time, we’re continuing to work closely with Israel and Lebanon on diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions on Israel’s northern border so that families can return to their homes – both in northern Israel and in southern Lebanon – and live in peace and security.

We also discussed the imperative of maximizing civilian protection and humanitarian aid to address the ongoing suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Nearly 2 million people have been displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands are experiencing acute hunger. Most have lost someone that they love. And day after day, more people are killed.

On all of my previous visits here and pretty much every day in between, we have pressed Israel in concrete ways to strengthen civilian protection, to get more assistance to those who need it. And over the past four months, Israel has taken important steps to do just that: starting the flow of aid; doubling it during the first pause for hostage releases; opening the north and south corridors in Gaza so that people could move out of immediate harm’s way, through these corridors with four hours’ pause every day, three hours’ notice; opening Kerem Shalom; starting the flow of assistance from Jordan; establishing deconfliction mechanisms for humanitarian sites. As a result, today, more assistance than ever is moving into Gaza from more places than at any time since October 7th.

As the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, the United States has helped provide much of that assistance, including funding 90,000 metric tons of flour delivered from Ashdod Port. That’s enough to provide bread for 1.4 million people for the next five months. A UN team began its mission to the north to assess conditions for the civilians who are still there, as well as what needs to be done to allow displaced Palestinians to return back home to the north.

And yet, as I said to the prime minister and to other Israeli officials today, the daily toll that its military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high. In our discussions today, I highlighted some key steps that Israel should take to ensure that more aid reaches more people in Gaza. Israel should open Erez so that assistance can flow to northern Gaza where, as I said, hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to survive under dire conditions. It should expedite the flow of humanitarian assistance from Jordan. It should strengthen deconfliction and improve coordination with the humanitarian providers. And Israel must ensure that the delivery of life-saving assistance to Gaza is not blocked for any reason, by anyone.

We urge Israel to do more to help civilians, knowing full well that it faces an enemy that would never hold itself to those standards – an enemy that cynically embeds itself among men, women, and children, and fires rockets from hospitals, from schools, from mosques, from residential buildings; an enemy whose leaders surround themselves with hostages; an enemy that has declared publicly its goal: to kill as many innocent civilians as it can, simply because they’re Jews, and to wipe Israel off the map.

That’s why we’ve made clear that Israel is fully justified in confronting Hamas and other terrorist organizations. And that’s why the United States has done more than any other country to support Israel’s right to ensure that October 7th never happens again.

Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7th. The hostages have been dehumanized every day since. But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others. The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7th, and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families. They’re mothers and fathers, sons and daughters – want to earn a decent living, send their kids to school, have a normal life. That’s who they are; that’s what they want. And we cannot, we must not lose sight of that. We cannot, we must not lose sight of our common humanity.

We remain determined as well to pursue a diplomatic path to a just and lasting peace, and security for all in the region, and notably for Israel. And that diplomatic path continues to come into ever sharper focus as I travel throughout the region and talk to all of our friends and partners. An Israel that’s fully integrated into the region, with normal relations with key countries, including Saudi Arabia, with firm guarantees for its security, alongside a concrete, time-bound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel, with the necessary security assurances.

Over the course of this trip, we discussed both the substance and sequence of steps that all would need to take to make this path real. That includes steps by the Palestinian Authority to reform and revitalize itself. And I reaffirmed the imperative of those steps in my meeting today with President Abbas, chief among them improving governance, increasing accountability to the Palestinian people, reforms that the Palestinian Authority is committed to make in a recently announced reform package and that we urge it to implement swiftly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Now, we can see so many of the actors in the region lining up to move down the path that I just described. But some are not. Some are trying to sabotage that path. Iran and its proxies continue to escalate and expand the cycle of violence that we all want to break. We’ll continue to defend our people, we’ll continue to defend our interests in the face of such attacks – not to fuel escalation, but to prevent it.

Finally, in my discussions today with the prime minister and senior officials, I also raised our profound concerns about actions and rhetoric, including from government officials, that inflame tensions, that undercut international support, and place greater strains on Israel’s security. The people of Israel have sacrificed enormously to forge this nation and to defend it. They’ll ultimately decide the right path to take, and whether they’re ready to make difficult choices necessary to realize the vision of the long-elusive prospect of true peace and true security. As a true friend of Israel, as the country that has always been first to its side – whether that was May 14th, 1948, or October 7th, 2023 – we will always offer our best advice on the choices before this country, especially the ones that matter the most.

Thank you. Happy to take some questions.

MR MILLER: The first question goes to Zolan Kanno-Youngs with The New York Times.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for the question. Just have a couple for you here. I know that you said there’s still room for agreement in terms of the negotiations over the release of hostages, but the prime minister after you spoke with him pretty bluntly dismissed Hamas’s response, describing it even as ludicrous. I just want to clarify, is this response, are these negotiations DOA at this point? And what specifically did the prime minister object to in that response?

Also, the prime minister shortly after you met with him made clear that Israeli troops will be moving deeper into Rafah. Will the United States simply stand by as this action is pursued, even with 1 million Palestinians – more than a million Palestinians being held – are in Rafah, seemingly with nowhere to go?

And if I may, Congress is now moving ahead with a bill that would pair aid for Ukraine with aid for Israel. Would the administration endorse any potential package that once again prohibits UNRWA funding? Thank you.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (left) meets with the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman in northern Gaza, Feburary 6, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s impressive. Now, I’m taking it that that includes the questions of all of your colleagues as well. Is that right?

QUESTION: I don’t think so. Couldn’t do that to them.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: All right. Starting with the – with the first part. Look, as I said, we’ve looked very carefully at what came back from Hamas, and there are clearly nonstarters in what it – what it’s put forward. But we also see space in what came back to pursue negotiations to see if we can get to an agreement, and that’s what we intend to do. And I’m not going to speak for Israel or anyone else involved, but again, we believe this space is there and we believe that we should pursue it.

With regard to Rafah, look, as I said before, Israel has the responsibility, has the obligation to do everything possible to ensure that civilians are protected and that they get the assistance they need in the course of this conflict. Any military campaign, military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost in mind. And I suggested, again, some ways to do that. And that’s especially true in the case of Rafah, where there are somewhere between 1.2 and 1.4 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of Gaza. So we want to make sure again that in anything that’s done, in any military operations, the situation for civilians is first and foremost in mind and that the necessary steps are taken to make sure that they’re protected and they have the assistance they need.

QUESTION: Sorry, Mr. Secretary. You said that – you mentioned – you suggested some ways to do that to ensure —

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I just went through a number of things that we urge Israel to do now on the building on what it’s already done in terms of both humanitarian assistance and civilian protection. And as I said with – in the case of Rafah itself, that’s extremely important because it has such a dense population, including many people who have been displaced from other parts of Gaza.

And on UNRWA, look, the – we were deeply concerned by the allegations that were made about the participation or involvement of some of its employees in the – in October 7th. And it’s imperative that, as the UN has said it’s doing, that there be a thorough investigation, that there be clear accountability, and that there be clear measures put in place to make sure that this can’t happen again, this – that personnel working for it were not in any way involved in terrorism or the events of October 7th. We know that the work that UNRWA performs, the functions that it performs, have to be preserved because so many lives are depending on it. And so going forward, we’re going to look to the actions that are taken. And as I said, it’s imperative that the functions be preserved.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during their meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Wednesday, February 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

QUESTION: It sounds like the administration then would potentially support an aid package that still prohibited funding for UNRWA.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’m not going to get ahead of our views on hypothetical pieces of legislation.

QUESTION: Although there was already —

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.

QUESTION: — an aid package that the administration endorsed that prohibited that funding?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’ll leave that to the next time. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Reservists guard a Hamas tunnel discovered in northern Gaza’s Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

MR MILLER: For the next question, Gil Tamary with Channel 13.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for the opportunity. Gil Tamary, Channel 13. It seems to be that the entire Biden doctrine vis-a-vis Israel, a future Palestinian state, the normalization with Saudi Arabia, is collapsing. Netanyahu says no with capital “N” to any form of a Palestinian state. Saudi Arabia says normalization with Israel will only be considered after an independent Palestinian state is formed in the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. So how does the U.S. intend to break this deadlock?

And secondly, regarding the hostage deal, after we listen tonight to Prime Minister Netanyahu that says that the Hamas’s demands are delusional, how do you find the space, as you mention, for negotiation? And do you feel that Netanyahu is exhausting every possible option to bring back the Israeli citizens kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas, or again Israeli politics is intervening? And lastly, why did you cancel your visit tomorrow to Kerem Shalom?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So this is good. We have – I think we have a trend going of at least three questions per questioner.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah. Last question first. There was no planned visit to Kerem Shalom so there was nothing to cancel. One of the things we want to make sure as well, as I said, is that assistance be able to move smoothly and sustainably. But there was nothing to cancel.

Second – I guess I’ll go in reverse order – on the hostage agreement, again, I’ll – I can only repeat myself: clearly, clearly there are things that Hamas sent back that are absolute nonstarters. And I assume that’s what the prime minister was referring to, but I don’t want to speak for him. But at the same time we see, in what was sent back, space to continue to pursue an agreement. And these things are always negotiations. It’s not flipping a light switch. It’s not yes or no. There’s invariably back and forth. And as I said, we see the space for that. And given the imperative, given the importance that we all attach to bringing the hostages home, we’re intent on pursuing it.

Finally, as I’ve said before, we were, before October 7th, pursuing the possibility of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And in fact, I was scheduled to come to Israel and to Saudi Arabia – I believe it was on October 10th – to pursue that, and in particular, to focus on what we already knew back then was a necessary Palestinian component to any normalization agreement. When I saw the crown prince in Saudi Arabia just a couple of days ago, he repeated to me his desire and determination to pursue normalization. But he also repeated that in order to do that, two things need to happen. One, there needs to be calm in Gaza; two, there needs to be a clear and credible pathway to a Palestinian state.

So as I said before, you can see the path forward for Israel and for the entire region with integration, with normalization, with security assurances, with the pathway to a Palestinian state. That entirely changes the equation and the future for the better for Israelis, for Arabs, for Palestinians, and in so doing isolates groups like Hamas, isolates countries like Iran, that want a very different future. But as I also said, going down that path, pursuing it, requires hard decisions. None of this is easy.

And so it will be up to Israelis to decide what they want to do, when they want to do it, how they want to do it. No one’s going to make those decisions for them. All that we can do is to show what the possibilities are, what the options are, what the future could be, and compare it to the alternative. And the alternative right now looks like an endless cycle of violence and destruction and despair. We know where the better path lies, but I don’t minimize in any way the very difficult decisions that would need to be made by all concerned to travel down that path.

Mourning families march to the Knesset in remembrance of the Supernova massacre victims on February 7, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

MR MILLER: Anton La Guardia with the The Economist.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Secretary. Can you – you’ve used some very specific words on – in describing this vision for a better path. What do you actually mean by clear, credible, irreversible, time-bound path to a Palestinian state?

And in Qatar and again today, you spoke about security, Israel receiving security guarantees and assurances from its neighbors. What does that actually mean? What’s on the table for Israel if it goes down this path? And would that include additional U.S. assurances to Israel on top of the arrangements that currently exist? Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I’m not going to get ahead of things or get into specifics. I think those words speak for themselves. How they’re defined, how they’re made real, that’s the subject of diplomacy. It’s very much the subject of the conversations that I’ve been having in the region as well as here as we flesh that out and give real substance to it. But I don’t want to get ahead of it.

What I can only add in response to the rest of your question is it’s clear to me, from talking to many of the countries in the region, that they’re prepared to do things with and for Israel that they were never prepared to do in the past, including steps that would further address any security concerns it might have. And similarly, the United States is prepared to do that, too. But the details of that, the substance of that, these are all things that we continue to talk about in these conversations, in our diplomacy, and will bring it into ever-sharper focus because at some point, yes, it will be very important to put forward exactly those details and see if, for all parties concerned, there is a credible pathway to walk down. And again, I believe that there is, but there remains a lot of work to be done in the weeks and months ahead.

Families of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza protest outside the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 6, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

MR MILLER: The final question goes to Mohammed Jamjoom with Al Jazeera English.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you. I have two issues I want to ask you about. The first is regarding the fact that you’ve spoken about the importance of creating a pathway for a Palestinian state. There have been reports that you’ve asked the State Department to review options on potentially recognizing a Palestinian state. So I want to ask you if that’s the case, and if so, is that a type of pressure point that you feel is needed to get Israel to agree to a ceasefire and one that could ultimately lead to a two-state solution? That’s the first issue.

The second issue I want to ask you about is the fact that Israel has maintained that Hamas needs to be eliminated, that it cannot have any role in governing Gaza after the war has ended. Where does the U.S. currently stand on this? Is it in any way acceptable to the U.S. for Hamas to be playing a role in governing Gaza in a day-after scenario, and what would U.S. policy be toward Hamas going forward?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: The short answer to the second part of the question is no. As to the first part of the question, look, as I just said, there are a number – as we’re defining the path forward, including the pathway to a Palestinian state, there are a number of policy options that people may propose as part of that process. But our focus today is on all of the diplomacy needed to bring it about, including, again, getting ideas, getting proposals from all concerned, and putting those together in a credible and clear plan. So that’s where we are, and as I said, we’ll continue to have these conversations to engage in that diplomacy, to really sharpen the focus on all of the different elements that would be necessary, that would be involved, and that each of the parties believes is important.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, everyone, and apologies for keeping folks late. Hope you get a chance to have some dinner. Thanks.

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