‘Massive loss of civilian life’ must not be repeated: Blinken tells Israel to create safe zones for Gazans before resuming fighting

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 says that in meetings he held today with Israeli leaders, he told them that when the IDF resumes its military campaign, it must clearly designate multiple safe zones in southern and central Gaza for civilians to avoid the fighting.

It must also avoid further mass displacement of Palestinians, he said, avoid the targeting of “life-critical infrastructure” such as hospitals, power stations, and water treatment plants, and allow the eventual return of displaced Palestinians to northern Gaza.

Each of these points has been made by US officials speaking on condition of anonymity in recent weeks, but this appears to be the first time they are made on the record, as the administration intensifies its pressure on Israel.

Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Blinken acknowledges that these measures are difficult to implement due to Hamas’s use of human shields, but insists that Israel still has an obligation to minimize harm to civilians and an army sophisticated enough to achieve its objectives while doing so.

Blinken begins the press conference by saying the Biden administration’s “immediate focus is on working with our partners to extend the pause” on the fighting between Israel and Hamas, so more hostages can get out of Gaza and more aid can get into the Strip.

“We will not stop working until we get every hostage back home with their families and loved ones,” Blinken says, adding that the quantity of aid entering the Strip is up “significantly.”

Blinken says the US continues to back Israel’s goal of toppling Hamas in Gaza. Israel has the right to ensure the slaughter of October 7 cannot be repeated, he says, stressing that Hamas cannot remain in control of the Strip and cannot retain the capacity to wreak carnage.

This morning’s deadly terror shooting in Jerusalem “underscored” the terror group’s intentions. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack “and called its perpetrators ‘heroic,'” he notes.

Nonetheless, “the way Israel defends itself matters,” Blinken says. Israel must act in accordance with “humanitarian law and the laws of war, even when confronting a terrorist group that respects neither,” he says.

In his meetings with Israel’s leaders today, he says, “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. 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.”

It also means avoiding further significant displacement of Gaza civilians, he says, and “avoiding damage to life-critical infrastructure like hospitals, like power stations, like water facilities. And it means giving civilians who’ve been displaced to southern Gaza the choice to return to the north as soon as conditions permit. There must be no enduring internal displacement.”

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

Still, he argues, 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 adds that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the war cabinet agreed with the approach pushed by the US to avoid civilian casualties.

“We discussed the details of Israel’s ongoing planning, and 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 says.

“As I told the prime minister, intent matters, but so does the result,” Blinken says.

He points out that Hamas too has choices, and could release all the hostages; stop using civilians as human shields; stop using civilian infrastructure to stage and launch terrorist attacks.

“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, says 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.”

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