Blinken in Israel urges humanitarian pauses in Gaza war

By Simon Lewis and Ari Rabinovitch

TEL AVIV (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he urged Israeli leaders on Friday to allow for humanitarian pauses in their war with Hamas in Gaza to allow time to boost aid to the Palestinian enclave and facilitate the release of hostages.

Blinken, on his second Middle East trip in less than a month, has sought to balance U.S. support for Israel’s response to Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attacks with efforts to minimise Gaza casualties which have soared under Israeli bombardment.

Blinken said he had discussed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s war cabinet how, when and where these pauses can be implemented and what understandings must be reached to boost aid, avoid civilian deaths and achieve freedom for the more than 240 hostages Israel says are held by Hamas.

Like Israel, the United States has dismissed growing international calls for a ceasefire but has sought to persuade Israel to accept localized pauses. Blinken signaled that precise details had yet to be ironed out.

“A number of legitimate questions were raised in our discussions today including how to use any period of pause to maximize the flow of humanitarian assistance, how to connect the pause to the release of hostages, how to ensure that Hamas doesn’t use these pauses or arrangements to its own advantage,” Blinken told reporters at a Tel Aviv press conference.

“These are issues that we need to tackle urgently, and we believe they can be solved.”

Blinken, U.S. President Joe Biden’s top diplomat, last visited in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in which Israel says 1,400 people were killed, triggering the bloodiest escalation in years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gaza health authorities say more than 9,000 people have been killed since Israel launched its assault on the enclave.

Ahead of a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Blinken reiterated that Israel has a right to “do everything possible to ensure that this Oct. 7 can never happen again.”

Herzog said Israel was going to great lengths to notify residents of airstrikes, holding up one of the pamphlets that he said Israel had dropped telling civilians to leave north Gaza. He said Israel had urged Gazans to leave in text messages and phone calls ahead of the offensive.

Families of some of the more than 240 people taken hostage by Hamas gathered outside the military complex in Tel Aviv where Blinken was meeting with Israel’s leaders. They called for there to be no ceasefire until Hamas releases all hostages.

Another priority for Blinken has been to ensure the conflict does not spread.

Speaking at the same time as Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, Blinken said Washington was determined there should not be a second or third front in the conflict and that it was committed to deterring aggression from any party.

“”With regard to Lebanon, with regard to Hezbollah, with regard to Iran – we have been very clear from the outset that we are determined that there not be a second or third front opened in this conflict,” Blinken said when asked if the U.S. would be willing to turn its regional firepower on targets in Lebanon and Iran.

Nasrallah blamed the United States for the war in Gaza and the high civilian death toll and said a de-escalation in the besieged enclave was vital to prevent regional war.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Ari Rabinovich; Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and James Mackenzie; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Howard Goller)