US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited Israel to express strong solidarity but also urges restraint to protect Palestinian civilians as the Israeli bombarding of Gaza continues for the sixth day.
The US top diplomat met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortly after landing in Tel Aviv on Thursday, telling him: “We’re here. We’re not going anywhere.”
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Netanyahu praised Blinken’s visit as a “tangible example of America’s unequivocable support of Israel”.
Blinken said that he came before journalists “not just as secretary of state, but also a Jew” while recounting his own family’s history of surviving the Holocaust.
“So prime minister, I understand on a personal level, the harrowing echoes that Hamas’ massacres carry for Israeli Jews, as well as Jews everywhere,” Blinken said, before calling for the protection of Gaza’s civilian population.
“We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard even when it is difficult and holding ourselves accountable when we fall short,” Blinken said at a joint news conference with Netanyahu.
“… That’s why it is so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians and that’s why we mourn the loss of every innocent life, civilians of every faith, every nationality …” he added.
His visit came after thousands of Israeli missiles killed at least 1,378 Palestinians since Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza, attacked Israel on Saturday.
At least 1,300 Israelis were also killed and dozens were taken captive by Hamas over the last six days.
Israeli army spokesperson Richard Hecht said on Thursday the military was readying for a potential order to launch a ground invasion in the war with Hamas: “This has not been decided yet … But we are preparing for a ground manoeuvre if it is decided.”
“Right now we are focused on taking out their senior leadership,” he told journalists.
Fears have grown for most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents now enduring the fifth war in 15 years in the long-blockaded territory, which has also seen Israel cut off water, food and power supplies.
US President Joe Biden also cautioned on Wednesday that Israel must, despite “all the anger and frustration … operate by the rules of war”.
“When reporters have pressed the White House and the State Department, asking ‘how can civilians in Gaza be protected from these bombardments when they are already dying by the hundreds’ … we have gotten evasive answers, that it was Hamas’s fault for using civilians as human shields,” Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from Washington, DC, said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, concerned about the “supercharged cycle of violence and horror”, urged the release of all captives and the lifting of the siege and stressed that “civilians must be protected at all times”.
“The human misery caused by this escalation is abhorrent,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross Middle East chief, Fabrizio Carboni, who stressed that hospitals without electricity “risk turning into morgues”.
There have been calls for a humanitarian corridor to allow Palestinians to escape before a possible Israeli ground invasion that would spell brutal urban combat and house-to-house fighting.
Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said the total siege of Gaza would continue until the captives are freed.
“Humanitarian aid to Gaza? No electric switch will be turned on, no water tap will be opened and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli abductees are returned home,” he said in a statement.
Israel has called up 300,000 reservists and rushed forces, tanks and heavy armour to the southern desert areas around Gaza from where Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7.
Israeli soldiers have since swept the southern towns and kibbutzim and killed about 1,500 fighters, according to military spokesperson Richard Hecht, while making ever more shocking discoveries of large numbers of dead civilians.
Threat from the north
Israel’s war flaring in the south is further complicated by a threat from the north, the Iran-backed Hezbollah armed group based in Lebanon.
Israel has massed tanks on the border after repeated clashes with Hezbollah in recent days, including cross-border rockets and shelling.
The United States has deployed an aircraft carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean in a show of support and warned Israel’s other enemies not to enter the conflict.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said all Muslim and Arab countries must confront Israel and support the “oppressed Palestinian nation”, in a phone call with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, according to the Iranian presidency website.
Blinken was on Friday due to visit Jordan and meet King Abdullah II as well as the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies