Blinken says civilian death toll in Gaza ‘far too high’

In Israel, US secretary of state urges working towards lasting peace and rejects permanent displacement of Palestinians from Gaza.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, January 3
Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli attack on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, January 3 [File: Emad Gabon/Reuters]

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the civilian death toll in Gaza is “far too high”, especially among children, and called for aid to reach the besieged strip more effectively.

Speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Blinken said the US continued to stand with Israel in its mission to “ensure that October 7 never happens again”, but also sought to avoid further civilian losses in Gaza and prevent the conflict from spreading to the wider region.

The US diplomat, who is on his fourth visit to the Middle East since the conflict began, said Israel had taken steps to ensure that aid reached the population of Gaza, including opening Karem Abu Salem, also known as Kerem Shalom, border crossing with Gaza.

Blinken travelled to Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates before Israel, and was in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Blinken’s visit to Ramallah and Israel showed there was no fundamental change in Washington’s stance, said Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri.

“The aim of the visit was to support the security of the occupation,” he told the Reuters news agency.

The Palestinian armed group said in a statement that Blinken’s position “reflects the extent of US involvement in these crimes and the widespread violations of all international laws committed by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip”.

Speaking in Israel earlier of plans for post-war Gaza, Blinken said countries in the region had expressed their readiness to work towards an “integrated region”, but that any agreement must include the fulfilment of Palestinian political ambitions.

“Many countries in the region are prepared to invest when the conflict is over in [Gaza’s] reconstruction and security,” Blinken said. “But it is essential to them that there also be a clear pathway to the realisation of a Palestinian political state.”

He added that the present moment presented a “powerful opportunity” but that all parties must work together towards this goal. “Israel must stop taking steps that undercut Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves effectively,” he said, including “settler violence carried out with impunity, settlement expansion, demolitions and evictions.

“All make it harder – not easier – for Israel to achieve lasting peace,” he said.

The top US official also reiterated that Washington rejects any plans for the permanent displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.

“As soon as conditions allow, we want to see people move back home and we’ve been very clear about that,” he said, adding that a UN assessment mission had been agreed upon to determine the presence of suitable conditions for residents to move back to northern Gaza.

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‘This war could end tomorrow’

Blinken deflected a reporter’s question on whether the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would accept a two-state solution and agree to a diplomatic solution, saying he could not speak for Tel Aviv.

Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor Marwan Bishara said Blinken spoke for Arab leaders, but refused to relay Israel’s position “because Netanyahu disagrees”.

“He doesn’t want a two-state solution, he does not want to leave Gaza or the West Bank, he wants to continue to settle illegally,” Bishara added.

Israel stands accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in The Hague, after South Africa filed the lawsuit at the end of December.

Blinken rejected the accusation as “meritless”, saying the lawsuit “distracts the war” and downplays the threats against Israelis and Jews.

The conflict broke out on October 7, when Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel that killed 1,139 people, according to Israeli authorities. Israel responded with a devastating bombardment and a ground invasion of Gaza that has destroyed much of the territory and killed more than 23,200 people, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian officials.

Blinken said the war could “have ended on October 8” if Hamas had given up its weapons and released the hostages. Israel said that of about 240 people seized by Palestinian armed groups on October 7, 132 are still being held in Gaza and 25 have died in captivity.

“This [war] could end tomorrow if Hamas makes those decisions,” he added.

Regional tensions

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken “stressed the importance of avoiding further civilian harm and protecting civilian infrastructure in Gaza”, according to the US Department of State.

The secretary of state voiced hope that, after the war, Israel could push on with its efforts towards regional integration following its US-brokered normalisation deals with the UAE and other states.

Several dozen protesters gathered outside the hotel where Blinken was holding the meetings and called for a ceasefire to secure the release of the captives.

Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told Blinken that increasing pressure on Iran was “critical” as it could prevent a regional escalation.

“An increase in the pressure placed on Iran is critical and may prevent regional escalation in additional arenas,” Gallant was quoted as saying in a government statement.

Tensions mounted on the Israel-Lebanon border on Tuesday as the Israeli army and the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah traded fire. In Jordan on Friday, Blinken noted “real concern” over the situation along the Lebanese border, which is stoking fears of a wider regional conflagration.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies