Blinken wants Gazans’ safety assured before Israel resumes military operations

By Humeyra Pamuk

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israel on Thursday it must ensure that Palestinian civilians in southern Gaza are safe and their humanitarian needs are met before resuming military operations there, his spokesperson said.

Blinken met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet in Jerusalem before heading to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

It was his third visit to the Middle East since Hamas carried out an Oct. 7 attack during which Israel says the Islamist group killed 1,200 people and kidnapped 240.

He said a 7-day-old truce between Israel and Hamas had produced results and the United States hoped it would continue.

In the Jerusalem meetings, Blinken reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel’s right to protect itself from terrorist violence in compliance with international humanitarian law, spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Blinken urged Israel to take every possible measure to avoid civilian harm, Miller said.

“The secretary stressed the imperative of accounting for humanitarian and civilian protection needs in southern Gaza before any military operations there,” Miller said.

Washington has urged Israel to narrow the zone of combat and clarify where Palestinian civilians can seek safety in southern Gaza, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, to prevent a repeat of the massive death toll from Israel’s northern Gaza attacks.

In a statement following the meeting, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to wiping out Hamas, which rules Gaza. Health authorities in Gaza say Israel’s bombardment has so far killed more than 15,000 people.

Miller said Blinken urged immediate steps be taken to hold settler extremists accountable for violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and reiterated that Washington remains committed to tangible steps to advance a Palestinian state “living in peace, freedom and security alongside Israel.”

The U.S. top diplomat said Washington was focused on helping to secure freedom for more hostages held in Gaza.

At a meeting in Tel Aviv with Israeli President Isaac Herzog earlier in the day, Blinken said: “We have seen over the last week the very positive development of hostages coming home, being reunited with their families.

“And that should continue today. It’s also enabled an increase in humanitarian assistance to go to innocent civilians in Gaza who need it desperately,” Blinken said.

Two Hamas gunmen killed three people at a Jerusalem bus stop during morning rush hour on Thursday, drawing condemnation from Blinken, Herzog and Netanyahu.

Earlier on Thursday, Israel and Hamas struck a last-minute agreement to extend their ceasefire in Gaza to Thursday to allow negotiators to keep working on deals to swap hostages held in the coastal enclave for Palestinian prisoners.

Blinken was later due to meet separately with opposition leader Yair Lapid, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and minister Benny Gantz.

The truce has brought the first respite to Gaza in seven weeks during which Israel bombed the territory in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas rampage.

The truce has also allowed for much needed humanitarian aid to enter Gaza after much of the coastal territory of 2.3 million was reduced to a wasteland by Israel’s military campaign.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Howard Goller, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)