U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his latest mission to contain the Gaza war, said displaced Palestinians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow, and Israel has agreed to allow a United Nations mission to evaluate the situation in war-ravaged northern Gaza.
“As Israel’s campaign moves to a lower intensity phase in northern Gaza and as the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] scales down its forces there, we agreed today on a plan for the U.N. to carry out an assessment mission,” Blinken told reporters during a Tuesday news conference in Tel Aviv. “It will determine what needs to be done to allow displaced Palestinians to return safely to homes in the north.
The top diplomat also urged Israeli leaders to prevent further harm to Palestinian civilians.
“The daily toll on civilians in Gaza, particularly on children, is far too high,” he said.
International Court of Justice hearings
Later this week, the International Court of Justice will conduct hearings on a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and seeking an emergency suspension of its military campaign.
The United States believes the case is meritless and that it distracts from Israel’s efforts to fight threats from Hamas militants and other Iran proxies, including Hezbollah and the Houthis, according to Blinken.
“We want this war to end as soon as possible,” he said. “But it’s vital that Israel achieves its very legitimate objectives of ensuring that October 7 can never happened again.”
Israeli President Isaac Herzog has rejected the genocide charge filed at the International Court of Justice, calling the accusation “atrocious and preposterous.”
On Tuesday, Blinken held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Herzog, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, and other senior officials from Israel’s war Cabinet in Tel Aviv.
“The Secretary and Prime Minister discussed ongoing efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages and the importance of increasing the level of humanitarian assistance reaching civilians in Gaza,” according to a statement from the State Department.
“In this regard, the Secretary welcomed the appointment of Sigrid Kaag as the UN’s Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza, pledging close cooperation with her in this new capacity,” the statement added.
Blinken has stressed the potential for Israel to win acceptance from Arab neighbors by seeking a path toward establishing a Palestinian state as a means to resolve the longstanding conflict.
Netanyahu has firmly rejected the two-state solution.
The West Bank and Gaza should be united under a Palestinian-led governance that Hamas militants play no role in, according to the postwar roadmap envisioned by Washington.
But some analysts are skeptical and play down the prospect.
“I don’t see how the Palestinian Authority will go back into Gaza and assume any kind of meaningful control over what is left of Gaza. They’re having a very hard time maintaining control, even in the West Bank,” Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told VOA on Tuesday.
Blinken also met on Tuesday with the families of some of the hostages held by Hamas militants in Gaza. And he relayed to Israeli leaders some of what he heard from other leaders in the region during stops in Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Gaza health officials say more than 23,000 Palestinians, a large percentage of them women and children, have been killed in Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
In a statement following talks with Blinken on Monday, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman underscored the importance of halting military operations in the Gaza Strip and the need to create conditions for restoring peace and stability.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia on Jan. 8, 2024.
When asked about U.S.-led talks to normalize the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Blinken said there is “a clear interest” in Saudi Arabia, as well as in the region, in pursuing that goal but that “it will require that the conflict end in Gaza, and it will also clearly require that there be a practical pathway to a Palestinian state.”
Saudi Arabia has paused the diplomatic talks to normalize ties with Israel amid the military conflict between Hamas militants and Israeli forces.
Escalation in no one’s interest
After an Israeli airstrike killed a key Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon on Monday — the latest sign of a possibly widening conflict in the Middle East — Blinken told reporters it is clearly not in the interest of Israel, Lebanon or Hezbollah to see an escalation outside Gaza.
A minibus passes the attacked car that was used by the senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike the previous day, in Kherbet Selem village, south Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024.
Hezbollah has identified the commander as Wissam al-Tawil. Last week, senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri was killed in a drone strike in Beirut. Hamas and Hezbollah are both U.S. designated terrorist organizations, and both are backed by Iran, whose militant allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have been carrying out longer-range attacks against Israel.
The United States has urged Israel to shift to smaller-scale military operations in Gaza but has continued to support Israel in refusing Arab demands for a cease-fire in the three-month war. Israel has vowed to continue the war until it believes the threat of Hamas attacks has been eradicated and the militant group no longer controls Gaza, a narrow strip of territory along the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel began its military campaign to wipe out Hamas after Hamas fighters crossed into southern Israel on October 7. Israel said about 1,200 people were killed and about 240 captives taken in the terror attack.
Cindy Saine contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.