WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken aims to shore up support for humanitarian pauses in the fighting in Gaza during his second trip to the Middle East since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, U.S. officials said Thursday to the Times of Israel as Biden’s administration’s top diplomat left for the region with a difficult task ahead.
Blinken will have to convince both Israel and Washington’s Arab allies, whose foreign ministers he plans to meet at a summit the State Department is hosting Saturday in the Jordanian capital Amman, a senior Arab diplomat said and a US official on condition of anonymity.
The Biden administration is proposing “temporary and localized” humanitarian pauses to increase the flow of aid into the Gaza Strip and to evacuate civilians more safely out of harm’s way, a second US official said, adding that they could also give Hamas the opportunity to obtain humanitarian aid. a better account of the approximately 240 hostages he kidnapped in Gaza during his October 7 attack.
The hostages are believed to be scattered in tunnels across the enclave, some of them held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and possibly other terrorists, and Hamas has at times claimed it does not know where they all are. If Hamas does not have a clear idea of where all the hostages are amid the chaos caused by the fighting, it will be more difficult to negotiate their release, the official said.
At the same time, Reuters reported that the United States is flying surveillance drones over the Gaza Strip to help gather intelligence on the location of the hostages, which are believed to include about 10 Americans.
The humanitarian pauses allow Hamas to regroup militarily, something the Biden administration does not want. But as they attempt to prevent the complete collapse of the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, taking with it much of its regional agenda, the US official speaking to The Times of Israel said this approach was necessary for Washington to continue.
Blinken will have to do a lot of convincing, however, because Israel has not yet adopted the idea of humanitarian pauses, convinced that Hamas will only give in if it is sufficiently compressed by the intensification of the IDF ground invasion , which was supported by great firepower from the Israeli army. air. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quickly denied a New York Times report, saying it was willing to consider humanitarian pauses.
Pressure to stop bombing areas where Gaza residents have been asked to flee
But even before attempting to persuade Israel to temporarily halt its counteroffensive in Gaza, the Biden administration privately pressured Israel to limit its airstrikes in the south of the enclave, arguing that the IDF has less legitimacy to target this area of the band. after telling civilians to evacuate the north of the country, a U.S. and Israeli official told The Times of Israel.
The Israeli official said the IDF strikes were focused mainly on northern Gaza, where a greater proportion of Hamas strongholds are located. However, it reserves the right to target the terrorist group anywhere in the Gaza Strip following the October 7 attack that left more than 1,400 people dead in Israel, the official said.
The Israeli official highlighted the IDF’s demarcation of a humanitarian zone in southwest Gaza where international aid is being provided to those who fled following the military directive for Palestinians to evacuate the northern part of the Strip. .
But the US official countered that the area has not been clearly designated by Israel and is far too small to house Gaza’s entire population of 2.3 million, leaving the vast majority of them still exposed to massive aerial bombardments by the IDF.
The US official clarified that Washington recognizes that Hamas operates within and under civilian populations throughout Gaza. However, the United States is concerned about the growing number of civilian casualties, which complicates the administration’s ability to continue supporting the Israeli military operation while rallying its allies to follow suit, the official added.
An uphill battle to move the Arab world from ceasefire to pause
Meanwhile, Washington’s Arab partners will need to be pushed in the other direction to support humanitarian pauses, given that they are overwhelmingly demanding a more immediate and lasting ceasefire.
Perhaps the strongest supporter of the ceasefire is Jordan, which last week submitted a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly calling for an end to the fighting in Gaza. Blinken will arrive in Jordan on Friday evening after spending the day in Israel.
In Amman, Blinken will participate in a ministerial summit with a group of Arab counterparts on Saturday, which he will use to rally regional partners behind as many of the Biden administration’s policies as possible regarding the war between Israel and Hamas, a declared the American official.
The official highlighted Washington’s calls for humanitarian pauses, increased humanitarian aid, rejection of permanent displacement of Palestinians and opposition to a permanent Israeli occupation of Gaza as some of the positions that Arab allies could support, while adding that the Biden administration aims to reach agreements. with participating countries on these issues before the summit, so that it does not end without a diplomatic outcome.
The summit guest list has not yet been finalized, the U.S. official said, while a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.
In the United States, too, calls for a ceasefire are slowly spreading from the far left of the Democratic Party.
Dick Durbin on Thursday became the first US senator to express support for a ceasefire, while specifying that it should include the release of all hostages in the Hamas-led enclave.
Durbin’s condition distinguished him from 18 far-left Democrats in his party who signed a resolution calling for a ceasefire, which made no mention of people kidnapped in Gaza. The Biden administration has so far rejected the ceasefire approach, saying it would amount to a victory for Hamas, leaving it functioning and capable of terrorizing Israelis in the future.
US Vice President Kamala Harris rejected calls to rein in Israel, telling reporters in London on Thursday: “We are not going to create conditions for the support we give to Israel to defend itself. »
She also said, “We are not telling Israel how it should fight this war,” but the aforementioned Times of Israel reporting showed a more nuanced American approach in private.
Develop a strategy for the day after
Before leaving for Tel Aviv on Thursday, Blinken told reporters that civilians are “bearing the brunt” of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza and that in Israel he will discuss “concrete steps” the IDF can take in order to protect civilians – some of the strongest comments he has made so far, as Gaza’s death toll surpassed 9,000, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. These figures cannot be independently verified and do, however, include Palestinian terrorists as well as civilians killed by errant rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza.
Blinken nevertheless reiterated that Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself so that its people are not massacred again by Hamas.
The secretary also acknowledged that Hamas is “literally” the reason civilians have been caught in the crossfire due to the terrorist group’s use of human shields and the placement of military infrastructure under or within hospitals, schools and mosques.
Blinken said he had five main agenda items for his trip to the region: strategizing with Israel regarding its military campaign; ensure that the war does not spread to other fronts; continued efforts to deliver more humanitarian aid to Gaza; help evacuate all U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who wish to leave Gaza; obtain the release of the hostages; and establish the conditions for a possible two-state solution once the war ends.
In discussing Israel’s war strategy, Blinken will again pressure Jerusalem to begin laying out its “morning after” scenario, a US official said.
Israel has so far refused to publicly address the question of who will govern Gaza if it succeeds in overthrowing Hamas. Even in private, formal discussions have not gone beyond the bureaucratic level of the various ministries involved, a U.S. official and an Israeli official said.
That void has been filled by the United States, which said Wednesday it would like to see a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority return to power in Gaza, with regional countries and international agencies possibly playing an interim role until that time. that Ramallah be liberated. ready.
This proposal is part of the Biden administration’s desire to seize the opportunity created by the current crisis to reunify the West Bank and Gaza under the same governing body, thereby advancing a two-state vision.
Israel has given no indication that it would be interested in such a framework, particularly given the hardline nature of its current government, which continues to take steps to weaken the Palestinian Authority’s more moderate rival, Hamas. . However, many see the right-wing coalition as having failed to protect the country on October 7, raising the possibility that it will ultimately be replaced by a group of more moderate parties.