Blinken to push Israel during visit to allow Palestinians to return to northern Gaza

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinians flee the Israeli ground offensive in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman, File)
Palestinians flee the Israeli ground offensive in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman, File)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will discuss during his visit to Israel next week “transitioning to the next phase” of the IDF’s war in Gaza, including “enabling Palestinians to return to their homes and neighborhoods as fighting curtails,” US State Department spokesman Matt Miller says during a press briefing.

Israel has thus far blocked Palestinians from northern Gaza, which it ordered to be evacuated in the early days of the war, arguing that fighters from Hamas and other terror groups remain in those areas.

The remark by Miller represents a gradual intensification of US calls on Israel to allow Palestinians to return to northern Gaza where many of the homes have been destroyed in the fighting.

Miller says Blinken will leave for his regional tour later today, making stops in Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt for meetings with foreign counterparts.

Also on Blinken’s agenda in Israel will be discussing “immediate measures to substantially increase humanitarian assistance to Gaza,” Miller says, noting that the US has led this effort, even as “conditions remained extremely difficult.”

“The secretary will stress the imperative of expanding and sustaining safe access for humanitarian organizations to deliver food, water, medicine, as well for commercial goods to enter all areas of Gaza,” Miller says. “There still remain a number of logistical hurdles to getting the level of trucks back to the level we need.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during his end-of-year news conference on December 20, 2023, at the State Department in Washington, DC. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

Before the war, some 500 aid trucks were entering Gaza each day. Since the war, that figure has plummeted to an average of less than 100 per day, save for a seven-day truce in late November when 200 trucks entered Gaza each day.

Israel agreed, following US pressure, to reopen its Kerem Shalom Crossing last month, allowing aid to directly enter Gaza from Israel for the first time along with aid through Egypt’s Rafah Crossing.

Israel reportedly has been weighing a series of gestures aimed at maintaining US support for the war, including reopening its Erez Crossing in northern Gaza, allowing Palestinians to return to areas they fled in northern Gaza and allowing aid to reach those areas as well.

Miller reiterates that far too many civilians have been killed in Gaza and that Blinken will discuss additional steps Israel can take toward that end.

Blinken will also talk with Israeli officials about “the need to do more to lower tensions in the West Bank,” Miller says, as the US continues to hold Jerusalem’s feet to the fire regarding settler violence and releasing tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues that belong to the Palestinian Authority.

Securing the release of the remaining hostages, including American citizens in Gaza, will also be at the top of Blinken’s agenda during his trip, Miller continues, asserting that the secretary will not rest until all of them are released.

Palestinians walk past destroyed buildings in Gaza City on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. (AP/Mohammed Hajjar)

Blinken will continue advancing the US effort to prevent the conflict in Gaza from fully spreading from other fronts and “will discuss specific steps parties can take, including how they can use their influence with others in the region to avoid escalation.”

As part of those discussions, Blinken will raise the need to take steps to deter Houthis attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, Miller says.

The secretary will use his meetings to urge all parties to take steps to secure a permanent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promote a more integrated region, “including a sustained mechanism for reconstruction and Palestinian-led governance of a unified West Bank and Gaza,” according to Miller.

“We don’t expect every conversation on this trip to be easy. There are obviously tough issues facing the region and difficult choices ahead, but the secretary believes it is the responsibility of the United States of America to lead diplomatic efforts to tackle those challenges head-on, and he’s prepared to do that in the days to come,” the State Department spokesman says.

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