'Toll on Palestinian civilians too high; more aid must get in'

Israel cannot use Oct. 7 as ‘license to dehumanize others,’ Blinken warns in Tel Aviv

After talks with Israeli leaders, US secretary issues harsh critique of IDF campaign in Gaza; also says Hamas hostage proposal has ‘nonstarters’ but ‘creates space for agreement’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)

In a stinging rebuke of Jerusalem’s prosecution of its war against Hamas in Gaza, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday warned Israel that it does not have “a license to dehumanize others.”

“Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7, ”said Blinken in prepared remarks at a Tel Aviv press conference. “The hostages have been dehumanized every day since. But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others.”

The White House has not hidden its dissatisfaction with Israel over civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip and the humanitarian situation there throughout the war, but Wednesday’s critique was the harshest to date.

Blinken spent a significant part of his remarks on those topics, after a day of meetings with Israel’s political and military leadership.

“The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7,” Blinken said. “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, who 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,” he added. “We cannot, we must not, lose sight of our common humanity.”

Blinken said that the US has pressed and continues to press Israel “in concrete ways to strengthen civilian protection” and to get more assistance to those who need it.

He noted that “Israel has taken important steps” on starting the flow of aid, then doubling it during the first truce in late November, opening civilian corridors, and opening the Kerem Shalom border crossing.

Palestinians transport their relatives said killed in Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip in Deir al Balah, February 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“As a result, more assistance than ever” is flowing into more places in Gaza “than at any time since October 7,” he said.

Nonetheless, he stressed that Israel “must ensure that the delivery of life-saving assistance to Gaza is not blocked for any reason, by anyone,” alluding to civilian protests by Israelis at Kerem Shalom. He also for the first time publicly called on Israel to re-open its Erez Crossing, which would allow aid to reach northern Gaza more directly.

At the same time, cautioned Blinken, “the daily toll that [Israel’s] military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high.”

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)

More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, as Israel has battled to dismantle Hamas in the wake of the Gaza-ruling terror group’s slaughter of 1,200 people in southern Israel and abduction of over 250 on October 7. The Hamas figures cannot be independently verified, are believed to include fatalities caused by failed rocket fire by Gaza terror groups, and do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed over 10,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza, and 1,000 more terrorists inside Israeli territory on October 7. Two hundred and twenty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

Blinken also called for “a concrete, time-bound and irreversible path” to a Palestinian state alongside Israel, both living in peace and security. That vision includes “an Israel that’s fully integrated into the region, with normal relations with key countries including Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to normalize relations with Israel, even after October 7, but they’ve stressed — as has Blinken — that no deal can be reached until there is a ceasefire in Gaza and that it must include the creation of an irreversible pathway toward a Palestinian state.

He noted that he had been scheduled to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia on October 10 to pursue normalization efforts, before the events of October 7 intervened.

The normalization process would also isolate Hamas and Iran, Blinken said. But it would require hard decisions. “The alternative right now looks like an endless cycle of violence and destruction and despair.”

President Isaac Herzog (right) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Early in his remarks, Blinken blasted Hamas, calling it “an enemy whose leaders surround themselves with hostages,” and saying it is “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,” Blinken insisted. “That’s why the United States has done more than any country to support Israel’s right to ensure that October 7 never happens again.”

Blinken opened his remarks with an update on hostage talks, saying his reason for returning to Israel for the seventh time since the Hamas attacks is “first and foremost to consult with our partners to bring all the remaining hostages home.”

Israelis block a highway as they demand the release of the hostage from Hamas captivity during a rally in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Turning to the Hamas counterproposal on a deal and Israel’s response, Blinken said 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.”

Hamas proposed a ceasefire plan that calls for a four-and-a-half-month truce during which hostages would be freed in three stages, and which would lead to an end to the war, Reuters reported, in response to a proposed outline sent last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators and backed by the United States and Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’s “delusional” conditions for a new hostage deal in a press conference earlier in the evening, arguing that only military pressure will secure the release of the Israelis being held captive in the Gaza Strip.

“Surrender to Hamas’s delusional demands, that we’ve just heard, not only would not bring about the freedom of the hostages, but it would only invite an additional slaughter; it would invite disaster for Israel that no Israeli citizens want,” Netanyahu said.

Palestinians look at a house destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 5, 2024. (Hatem Ali/AP)

Netanyahu said that he told Blinken that Israel is “within touching distance of absolute victory,” and that Hamas’s defeat will be the “victory of the entire free world.”

The premier said that after Khan Younis, “the main Hamas stronghold,” the IDF is readying to fight next in Rafah.

Responding to a question about a potential IDF operation in Rafah, Blinken said that any military operation that Israel undertakes “needs to put civilians first and foremost in mind.”

Palestinians demonstrate in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), January 30, 2024. (AFP)

The secretary was also asked about UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, to which the US suspended aid over allegations that 12 of the organization’s staffers participated in the Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught.

He said “it is imperative” that there be a thorough investigation of some of the UNRWA staffers’ alleged participation, and that clear measures be put in place so that personnel can never again be involved in terrorism.

The work UNRWA performs “has to be preserved, because so many lives depend on it… The functions have to be preserved.”

Blinken was also asked whether the US sees any role for Hamas in governing post-war Gaza. “The short answer,” he said, “is no.”

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