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Blinken urges Israel to avoid 'massive' civilian losses in southern Gaza

Published 11/29/2023, 05:30 PM
Updated 11/30/2023, 07:21 PM
© Reuters. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards his airplane prior to departure from Skopje International Airport in Skopje, North Macedonia, November 29, 2023.   SAUL LOEB/Pool via REUTERS

By Humeyra Pamuk

JERUSALEM/TEL AVIV (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel's military operations in southern Gaza must not repeat the massive loss of civilian life and displacement seen during its offensive in the north.

At a news conference in Tel Aviv following a marathon day of meetings with senior Israeli leaders, Blinken said he laid out clear steps for Israel to minimise civilian casualties but did not say if was assured the steps would be taken.

"We discussed the details of Israel's ongoing planning and I underscored the imperative for the United States that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in northern Gaza not be repeated in the South," Blinken said.

Gazan authorities say Israel's bombardment - retaliation for Hamas' deadly rampage in southern Israel on Oct. 7 - has so far killed more than 15,000 people in the enclave run by the Palestinian militants.

"Israel understands the imperative of protecting civilians, the imperative of the humanitarian assistance, and will continue to work to ensure that that carries forward in practice," he said. "As I told the prime minister, intent matters, but so does the result."

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.

Blinken said he told Israeli leaders to put in place civilian protection plans that minimise casualties.

"That means taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians, including by clearly and precisely designating areas and places in southern and central Gaza, where they can be safe and out of the line of fire," Blinken said.

It also meant, he said, avoiding damage to critical infrastructure like hospitals, power stations and water facilities and allowing civilians who have been displaced to southern Gaza the choice to return to north.

"Israel has one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. It is capable of neutralising the threat posed by Hamas, while minimising harm to innocent men, women and children," Blinken said.

In a statement following the meeting, Netanyahu's office said the prime minister reaffirmed Israel's commitment to wiping out Hamas.

Earlier, Blinken said a seven-day-old truce between Israel and Hamas had produced results and the United States hoped it would continue.

"Our immediate focus is working with our partners to extend the pause so that we can continue to get more hostages out of Gaza and more assistance in," Blinken said.

Israel and Hamas agreed to extend their ceasefire for a seventh day, while mediators pressed on with talks to extend the truce further to free more hostages and let aid reach Gaza.

The truce has halted bombing and allowed some humanitarian aid into Gaza after much of the coastal territory of 2.3 million people was reduced to wasteland in an Israeli campaign in retaliation for a deadly rampage by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.

REFORMS FOR THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY

The top U.S. diplomat, who is on his third visit to the Middle East a deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 people and kidnapped 240 others, also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Washington has repeatedly said Palestinians should govern Gaza after the war. Blinken said a "revitalized" Palestinian Authority could run both Gaza and the West Bank, a suggestion Netanyahu has thrown cold water on.

Analysts question the effectiveness and the influence of the PA given its organizational shortcomings and Blinken said he discussed with Abbas the need for reform to revamp the PA so that it can deliver for the Palestinian people.

© Reuters. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a meeting with the Israeli President (not pictured), in Tel Aviv, Israel on November 30, 2023, following the announcement of an extension of the truce between Israel and Hamas just before it was due to expire.  SAUL LOEB/Pool via REUTERS

"There are a number of things that go into that, including, for example, reforms so that it more effectively combats corruption, that it engages and empowers civil society, that it supports a free press and open media and a number of other things," he said.

Asked if the reforms would include a leadership reshuffle, Blinken said that was up to the Palestinian people.

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