By Humeyra Pamuk
TEL AVIV (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Benjamin Netanyahu he understood on a personal level ‘the harrowing echoes that Hamas’ massacres carry for Israeli Jews’ and Washington was at Israel’s side, as he began a Middle East trip also aimed at containing the conflict.
From a podium next to the Israeli Prime Minister at the military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Thursday, Blinken urged Israel to show restraint in its retaliation, in his most direct plea so far, asking that it take every possible precaution to protect civilian life.
Washington’s top diplomat embarked on a multi-country Middle East tour as Israel unleashes the most powerful bombing campaign in the 75-year history of its conflict with the Palestinians, vowing to annihilate Hamas – which rules the Gaza Strip – in retribution for the militants’ weekend attacks.
Blinken will also try to help secure the release of hostages kidnapped by Hamas, some thought to be Americans, and advance talks with Israelis and Egyptians on providing a safe passage for Gaza civilians out of the enclave before a possible Israeli ground invasion.
At least 25 Americans were killed in the Hamas attacks, he said.
“You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself. But as long as America exists, you will never ever have to. We will always be there by your side,” Blinken told Netanyahu.
He also offered an emotional, personal aside, recounting how his grandfather fled pogroms in Russia and his stepfather survived Nazi concentration camps.
“I understand on a personal level the harrowing echoes that Hamas’ massacres carry for Israeli Jews, indeed, for Jews everywhere,” he said.
After Israel, Blinken will head to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He is likely to continue onto other Arab countries, U.S. officials say, without specifying which.
Blinken’s trip also aims to send a deterrence message to Iran, which backs Hamas, to not get involved in the conflict.
Israel has vowed retribution for the deadliest attack on Jewish civilians in its history, when hundreds of Hamas gunmen poured across the barrier fence and rampaged through Israeli towns on Saturday.
The escalation is the most serious in the region in years.
Blinken said that Israel is obliged to defend itself in a way to ensure the cross-border attack can never happen again, and that he spoke with Netanyahu about how it will do so.
“We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard, even when it’s difficult,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”
Blinken also said as Israel’s defense needs evolve, Washington would work with congress to ensure they are met.
Israel has said there would be no humanitarian break to its siege of the Gaza Strip until all hostages were freed.
A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Washington was working to advance talks on providing a safe passage to civilians, including around 500 to 600 Palestinian Americans resident in Gaza.
Containing the conflict is a top priority for Washington and Blinken has been speaking with regional allies, which speak to Iran and Iran-backed groups, to ask them to advise Tehran to keep out.
“We’re very intent on demonstrating … that we’re committed to keeping other parties out of this conflict,” the official said.
(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)