Speaking during a visit to Israel Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed Washington’s desire to see humanitarian pauses in the fighting in the Gaza Strip, while acknowledging the challenge of preventing Hamas from using the temporary cessations to its advantage.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Blinken met shortly before holding his Tel Aviv press conference, appeared to push back against such pauses, saying in a statement that he rejected any temporary halt to the fight against Hamas that does not include “the release of our hostages.” He noted that he had said as much to the top US diplomat.
In another sign of some daylight between the sides, Blinken called for supplying fuel to the Strip, alongside other humanitarian aid, saying “mechanisms” could be put in place to ensure it reaches Gaza hospitals. He also noted concerns shared with Israel of Hamas siphoning off fuel for its own needs. Netanyahu, meanwhile, insisted that Israel “will not enable the entry of fuel to Gaza.”
In his remarks, the US foreign policy chief stressed that “as long as the United States stands, Israel will not stand alone,” adding that he had relayed this message in his meetings with Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog and the war cabinet.
And he reiterated that Israel has a “right and, indeed, obligation to defend itself and to do everything it can to make sure that October 7th never happens again.” At the same time, however, he said, “the way that Israel does so matters, adding bluntly: “We need to be doing more to protect Palestinian civilians.”
“No country should or could tolerate the slaughter” of its innocents, he said, and noted that he was shown “additional images, additional footage, collected by the Israeli government from video cameras — some the terrorists’ own, others in communities that were attacked” by Hamas and other terrorists on October 7. The clips are “almost beyond the human capacity to process,” he said.
Blinken called it “shocking” that the brutality of the slaughter had “receded so quickly in the memories of so many.” Not so in Israel and the United States, he added, mentioning that 33 Americans were killed in the massacres, along with 220 foreign nationals.
At the same time, he argued that protecting Palestinians as Israel wages its war was the “right thing to do” and that failing to do so “plays into the hands of Hamas.”
Israel launched its war against Hamas on October 7, after the terror group carried out a bloody onslaught in southern Israel, killing some 1,400 people and taking over 240 hostages. The vast majority of those killed that day were civilians, many of them slaughtered in their homes. In response to the killings, Israel vowed to eradicate the terror group and destroy its infrastructure and has since hit thousands of Hamas targets inside the Strip with airstrikes and an ongoing ground operation. Israel says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has accused Israel of killing more than 9,000 people, most of them civilians. The numbers cannot be verified by external sources, and Hamas is believed to be including its own members in the toll, as well as those killed by failed rocket launches from within the enclave.
Hundreds of thousands of Gazans from the Strip’s north have moved to tent camps in the south as Israel has warned of its intensifying offensive on the Gaza City area. The UN and international actors have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe and have called on Israel to greatly increase the aid allowed into the Strip via Egypt’s Rafah crossing.
‘Advice only the best of friends can offer’
Blinken said he had discussed with Israel steps to take to fight under these conditions — “advice that only the best of friends can offer.”
He stressed the need to increase aid flow to Gaza civilians — 100 trucks a day was not enough, he said — and further steps to help get more foreign nationals out. He said he spoke to Israeli leaders about tangible steps for “food, water, medicine, fuel and other essential needs” to be met.
Blinken acknowledged that legitimate questions were raised in his talks with Israeli officials about how to best use any humanitarian pauses to allow in more aid, and help secure the release of the hostages, while preventing Hamas from using the temporary cessations to its advantage.
But he also emphasized that refusing to allow such aid to arrive would fill potential partners for peace with anger and alienate them. “There will be no partners for peace if they are consumed by [concerns for] humanitarian catastrophe [among Gazans] and alienated by any presumed indifference to their plight.”
He urged “humanitarian pauses” that he said could enable increased security for Gaza civilians and more effective assistance. He said he had discussed with Israeli leaders “how, when and where” these pauses could occur. “This would take time” to prepare and coordinate, he noted, and there are “legitimate questions” about how to connect such pauses to the release of hostages and how to avoid Hamas abusing any such pauses.
Blinken said that just as he has been pained to watch how the carnage has impacted Israeli children, he’s felt no different watching Palestinian girls and boys being pulled from the rubble of buildings bombed by Israel.
“When I see them, when I look into their eyes from the TV screens, I see my own children,” Blinken stated. “How can I not?”
The secretary clarified that Hamas doesn’t care about Palestinians and “cynically and monstrously uses them as human shields,” placing its infrastructure and fighters in residential buildings, schools, mosques and hospitals. But “civilians should not suffer the consequences for its inhumanity and brutality.”
He added that the US was also relentlessly focused on securing the release of the hundreds of hostages held by Hamas, including Americans.
Blinken gave no indication that the US was seeking to put a time limit on the war, and indeed spoke of a post-war era “once Hamas is defeated.” He said the goal of the war cannot only be to defeat Hamas but also to create a brighter future that includes a two-state solution.
“This is about dealing with Hamas in terms of defeating it physically, that is, making sure that it can’t repeat what it did on October 7th. But it is also about defeating an idea — a perverted idea… that we have to combat with a better idea… with a better vision for what that future can be and demonstrating that we’re committed to achieving [it],” Blinken said.
He said the two-state vision could “give people something to hope for” and that there was a broad and strong coalition throughout the region” that supports it.
“We also know that Israel cannot reassume control and responsibility for Gaza. And it’s important to note that Israel has made clear it has no intention or desire to do that,” he said, in answer to a question.” He promised discussion “with partners throughout the region and well beyond about what should follow once Hamas is defeated.”
With settler violence rising in the West Bank as the war has raged, Blinken said Israeli leaders had assured him that they will condemn attacks on Palestinian civilians and take action to curb the phenomenon and to hold perpetrators accountable.
“Extremist violence against Palestinians must be stopped,” he remarked. “We will be looking closely to ensure that our friends make good on that commitment.”
Blinken’s visit was his third since the start of the war. He was set to continue to an Arab summit in Jordan.
Netanyahu: ‘We won’t stop until victory’
In his own brief televised statement before the start of Shabbat, Netanyahu promised that victory in Gaza will be “sharp and clear” and will “resonate for generations.”
He said Israel’s enemies aim to destroy the country and will fail. “We won’t stop until victory,” he said, specifying that this means “to destroy Hamas, [and attain the] return of the hostages and the restoration of security for our citizens and children.”
He praised Israel’s soldiers, saying they were killing terrorists “around the clock” in Gaza, with close cooperation between the IDF’s ground and air forces.
Regarding Blinken’s visit, he said he appreciates it and values the support of US President Joe Biden and the US. He said he told Blinken that “Israel refuses a temporary ceasefire that does not include the release of our hostages. Israel will not enable the entry of fuel to Gaza and opposes sending money to the Strip.”
The question of fuel
Earlier in the day, the Israel Defense Forces published a recording of what it said was a phone call from a day earlier in which a Gazan medical official acknowledged that Hamas’s fuel reserves were stored directly under Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in the Strip.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, Israeli officials planned to present the call, as well as other evidence on the matter, to Blinken, in an attempt to lower the international pressure to allow fuel to enter the Strip.
“The call confirms that Hamas controls the energy and fuel resources in the Gaza Strip and chooses to direct them for terrorism,” the IDF said in a statement. “Moreover, if fuel is allowed to enter the Gaza Strip, Hamas plans to seize those resources.”
On Thursday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said that Israel would allow fuel to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing with Egypt should Israel determine that hospitals have run out of fuel.
Hospitals in Gaza, which rely on the fuel to power generators, have warned for over a week that they are about to run out, Halevi noted, but none have as of yet.
Shortly after Halevi’s comments, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a terse statement noting only that Netanyahu “has not approved the entry of fuel into Gaza.”