Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said he discussed with Israeli officials how to protect civilians in Gaza from harm and efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, as Israel has launched a punishing aerial campaign in response to an unprecedented assault by the terrorist group Hamas.
During a press conference in Israel, Blinken said civilians in Gaza are not the target of Israel’s “legitimate security operations to defend itself from terrorism and to try to ensure that this never happens again.”
“Hamas continues to use civilians as human shields, something that’s not new, something that they’ve always done, intentionally putting civilians in harm’s way to try to protect themselves or protect their infrastructure or protect their weapons,” Blinken said. “So that’s one of the basic facts that Israel has to deal with.”
Biden administration officials have said they expect Israel to abide by international laws of war as it conducts counterstrikes in Gaza. But concerns are mounting that the strip’s small size and dense population — an estimated 2 million people in an area of 140 square miles — will result in a significant civilian death toll and a humanitarian crisis for those displaced.
Israel had announced a siege of the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s attack, which was launched Saturday morning, with more than 1,000 believed killed. Reports have emerged of horrendous atrocities, such as people massacred at a concert, shot in their homes and on the street and mutilated bodies.
Blinken, after reviewing images of those killed, described Hamas’s attack as “depravity, in the worst imaginable way, it almost defies comprehension.”
Israel, in response, has stopped the supply of electricity, fuel, food and other commodities through Israeli crossings into Gaza as it carries out large-scale airstrikes against Hamas.
A Gaza crossing with Egypt, at Rafah, has reportedly been closed since Tuesday amid Israeli airstrikes on the strip.
Blinken said that he discussed with Israeli officials “ways to address the humanitarian needs of people living in Gaza and to protect them from harm,” including the possibility for the safe passage of civilians to leave Gaza.
“So this is important. And this is an area for focus.”
The Gaza Ministry of Health, which is controlled by Hamas, has said that total casualties in the strip amount to 1,354 killed and 6,049 injured as of Thursday. It is warning that the health system in the strip is beginning to collapse, that intensive care unit beds are filled and the number of injured people exceeds the capacity of operation rooms.
The threat of further civilian casualties in Gaza also extends to an estimated 150 hostages that Hamas kidnapped from inside Israel, with Americans believed to be among them.
U.S. officials have said they have limited to no information on the condition of hostages, where they are being held or their locations, either grouped together or spread out across the strip. Hamas has built up a network of tunnels under the strip that it uses to move around and avoid Israeli strikes.
Blinken said he would continue conversations on the humanitarian situation for people in Gaza with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah and leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Qatar.
“Across each of these engagements, we’ll continue pressing countries to help prevent the conflict from spreading, and to use their leverage with Hamas to immediately and unconditionally release the hostages,” Blinken said.
Many of these governments have contacts with Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 after ousting the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in a bloody takeover, even as it had control of the government following elections in the strip in 2006.
Previous instances of negotiations between Hamas and countries such as Egypt, Qatar and the UAE had brought about a cease-fire with Israel and periods of calm.
Yet this is unlikely to happen in the short term, as Israel has rejected calls for negotiations or a cease-fire and is making preparations for a possible ground invasion.
Lior Haiat, spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in a briefing Thursday that Israel is not “negotiating anything right now.”
“Israel is still at war … there are still terrorists in Israeli territory,” Haiat said. “They are still launching missiles … we are still fighting terrorists that are trying to enter Israel and to murder Israelis. So there is no negotiation, mediation, about that.”
Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), told reporters that Israel is carrying out strikes on Gaza on “military targets, according to our values, to our morals and according also to international law of armed conflict.”
He spoke of the challenge of carrying out strikes, describing Hamas as embedding itself in the population by building an underground tunnel network below “houses, schools, kindergartens, hospitals — because they know that we follow, again, our morals, our values, and the law of armed conflict.”
He said the IDF is making efforts to warn civilians about incoming strikes, including dropping leaflets, phone calls and small armaments dropped on the roofs of buildings to signal an incoming strike.
But he said some strikes are carried out faster than warnings can be delivered.
“Sadly, there are times that we cannot [deliver warnings] and yet, that is because it’s a time-critical targets, or for other reasons, that we need to carry out a strike without using those very high amount of efforts that are put into making sure that as least as possible civilians are hurt, injured and of course, hopefully, not killed.”
Source : The Hill