Stop harming Gaza civilians, Blinken tells Netanyahu as fighting rages in Khan Younis

American top diplomat visits Israel as Biden administration ups pressure on Jerusalem to reduce intensity of its war on Hamas; reports say US is pushing Saudi peace initiative

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday that Israel must stop causing additional harm to civilians in Gaza, the State Department said.

“The secretary reaffirmed our support for Israel’s right to prevent the terrorist attacks of October 7 from being repeated and stressed the importance of avoiding further civilian harm and protecting civilian infrastructure in Gaza,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement after Blinken met Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

It appeared to be the first time the Biden administration called on Israel to avoid targeting civilian infrastructure in addition to civilians themselves, as the scope of destruction in Gaza continues to mount.

During a press conference late Tuesday, Blinken said that the toll on Gazans, especially children, is “far too high.”

He also called on Israel to support UN efforts to rehabilitate the Strip, and to back new Gaza Humanitarian Coordinator Sigrid Kaag: “She has America’s full support; she must have Israel’s as well.”

The top US diplomat met with Israel’s full war cabinet after his long one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu.

Blinken and Netanyahu discussed “ongoing efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages and the importance of increasing the level of humanitarian assistance reaching civilians in Gaza,” according to Miller.

In a possible sign of discord during the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office did not release a readout, as it generally does.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) speaks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken outside the Kirya military HQ in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Elad Malka/ Defense Ministry)

At the press conference, Blinken said that normalization with more Arab states “only comes from a regional approach that includes a pathway to a Palestinian state.”

“This crisis has clarified,” he continued. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Bolstering the Biden administration’s talk of a Palestinian state, according to an unsourced Channel 12 report, Washington is floating the Arab Peace Initiative that Saudi Arabia sponsored more than 20 years ago as a possible framework to end the war against Hamas in Gaza.

The 2002 initiative offers Israel normalized ties with the entire Arab world once it reaches a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. Riyadh had set that agreement aside as it pursued separate normalization talks with Israel, brokered by the US, before Hamas’s October 7 attacks. The Saudis are widely thought to be readying for the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel without first securing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The report said the Biden administration is arguing that such an agreement would be in the interest of the US, Israel and regional countries.

It said that Blinken has conveyed to the Israelis that the images and footage of the war in Gaza are leading to “radicalization” in Mideast countries, and is pushing Israel for talks on a diplomatic agreement in the north, for more humanitarian aid to Gaza and for a “diplomatic horizon” for the Palestinian Authority.

But Israeli leaders have a different vision for the war in Gaza, at least in the near term.

In his meeting with Blinken, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Israel will intensify its operations in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis region until Hamas leaders are found and the Israeli hostages are freed.

According to a readout of the meeting, Gallant briefed Blinken on the war developments and noted Israel’s “changes in combat tactics” in north Gaza, where the military has scaled back some of the fighting now that it has attained operational control of the area.

IDF troops operate in Gaza in a handout image cleared for publication on January 9, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Gallant “emphasized that operations in the region of Khan Younis will intensify and continue until Hamas leadership is detected, and Israeli hostages return home safely,” the readout said.

The defense minister also asked Blinken to raise the pressure on Iran in order to prevent escalation in other theaters.

He said Israel’s top priority currently is to enable the return of residents to the north of the country, where fighting with Hezbollah has intensified, stoking fears of a broader conflagration.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir pushed back more openly against the US pressure, addressing a tweet in English to Blinken, saying, “It’s not the time to speak softly with Hamas, it’s time to use that big stick.”

‘Extremely complicated circumstances’

In Israel for his fifth visit since the October 7 Hamas attacks, Blinken started his day with a meeting with President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv.

Standing next to Herzog, Blinken spoke about Washington’s “relentless efforts” to bring the remaining hostages home from Hamas captivity. He added that he would share what he heard from regional allies with Herzog and Netanyahu.

Herzog underscored that Israel is doing its “utmost under extremely complicated circumstances on the ground, to make sure that there will be no unintended consequences and no civilian casualties.”

President Isaac Herzog, right, meets with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We are alerting, we are calling, we are showing, we are sending leaflets, we are using all the means that international law enables us in order to move out people, so that we can unravel this huge city of terror underneath, in people’s homes, living rooms and bedrooms, mosques and shops and schools,” Herzog said.

Blinken later seemed to back Herzog’s claim, acknowledging that fighting an enemy “that embeds itself among civilians, who hides in and fires from schools and hospitals, makes this incredibly challenging.”

Some families of Gaza hostages rallied outside the meeting, urging US President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to release the abductees.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz, second from right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, third from left, in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2024. (Shlomi Amsalem/Foreign Ministry)

Profound tension

As fighting continues to escalate between Israel and Hezbollah along the Lebanese border, US officials have sounded the alarm over the potential for the war in Gaza to spread.

“This is a moment of profound tension in the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and even more suffering,” said Blinken in Qatar on Sunday.

The White House has also sent other senior officials to try to find a diplomatic means of heading off a full-on war between Israel and Hezbollah. Biden dispatched special envoy Amos Hochstein to the region, as Washington intensified its diplomatic engagement in a bid to lower roiling tensions between Israel and Iran’s Lebanese proxy.

Cross-border attacks from Lebanon have persisted since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip on October 7, when thousands of terrorists burst into Israel from Gaza, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping over 240, mostly civilians.

In this undated picture released by Hezbollah Military Media, senior Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil, center, who was killed in Kherbet Selem village, southern Lebanon, on January 8, 2024, stands next to top Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, right, who was assassinated in Syria in February 2008. (Hezbollah Military Media, via AP)

The Biden administration is also eager to see fighting in the Gaza Strip wind down, and the humanitarian situation improve significantly.

With Biden trailing likely GOP challenger Donald Trump in polling ahead of this year’s presidential election, the need to move past the scenes of destruction in Gaza takes on additional urgency in Washington.

Facing far-left protestors calling for a ceasefire on Monday, Biden said during a speech at a church in South Carolina that he has “been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.”

Palestinians walk under the rain at a camp for displaced people in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip where most civilians have taken refuge Israel-Hamas war, on December 13, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari told The New York Times on Monday that the IDF had already begun a new, less intensive phase in the war against Hamas, with fewer ground troops and airstrikes.

A senior US official told CNN on Tuesday that Blinken expected to focus on Israel’s plan to shift to the third phase. The official added that Blinken and his team would push Israel’s war leadership for an “imminent” transition to the next phase, which would see a reduction in the intensity of fighting and a possible return of Gazans to their homes in the northern part of the Strip.

Emanuel Fabian and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: