WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken aims to build support for humanitarian pauses in the fighting in Gaza during his second trip to the Middle East since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, US officials told The Times of Israel on Thursday as the Biden administration’s top diplomat departed for the region with a difficult task ahead.
Blinken will need to convince both Israel and Washington’s Arab allies, whose foreign ministers he is planning to meet at a summit the State Department is organizing in the Jordanian capital Amman on Saturday, a senior Arab diplomat and a US official said on condition of anonymity.
The Biden administration is pitching “temporary and localized” humanitarian pauses to increase the flow of aid on the Strip and to more safely evacuate civilians out of harm’s way, a second US official said, adding that they could also give Hamas an opportunity to get a better account of the roughly 240 hostages it kidnapped into Gaza during its October 7 onslaught.
The hostages are believed to be scattered in tunnels throughout the enclave, with some of them held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and possibly other terrorists, and Hamas has at times claimed not to know where they all are. If Hamas doesn’t have a clear idea of where all the hostages are amid the chaos caused by the fighting, it’s difficult for it to hold negotiations over their release, the official said.
In the meantime, Reuters reported that the US is flying surveillance drones over the Gaza Strip to help gather intelligence on the locations of the hostages, which are believed to include roughly 10 Americans.
The humanitarian pauses do allow for Hamas to regroup militarily, which the Biden administration does not want. But as it tries to keep the humanitarian situation on the Strip from collapsing entirely, dragging much of its regional agenda down with it, the US official speaking to The Times of Israel said the approach was necessary for Washington to pursue.
Blinken will need to do a lot of convincing, though, as Israel has yet to embrace the idea of humanitarian pauses, convinced that Hamas will only buckle if sufficiently squeezed by the IDF’s intensifying ground invasion, which has been backed by plenty of firepower from the air. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a swift denial of a New York Times report, claiming he was prepared to consider humanitarian pauses.
Pressure to cease bombing areas where Gazans told to flee
But even before it tries to coax Israel to temporarily halt its counter-offensive in Gaza, the Biden administration has been privately pressing Israel to limit its airstrikes in the enclave’s south, arguing that the IDF has less legitimacy to be targeting that area of the Strip After telling civilians to evacuate there from the north, a US and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.
The Israeli official said the IDF strikes have focused mostly on northern Gaza where a larger proportion of Hamas strongholds are located. However, it reserves the right to target the terror group anywhere on the Strip after the October 7 onslaught left over 1,400 people dead in Israel, the official clarified.
The Israeli official highlighted the IDF’s demarcation of a humanitarian zone in southwest Gaza where international aid is being provided to those who have fled following the military’s directive for Palestinians to evacuate the northern part of the Strip.
But the US official retort that this zone has not been clearly designated by Israel and is far too small to house Gaza’s entire population of 2.3 million people, leaving the vast majority of them still exposed to the IDF’s massive aerial bombardment.
The US official clarified that Washington recognizes that Hamas is operating from within and underneath civilian populations throughout the entirety of Gaza. However, the US is concerned about the ballooning number of civilian casualties, which complicates the administration’s ability to continue supporting Israel’s military operation while also rallying allies to follow suit, the official added.
Uphill battle to move Arab world from ceasefire to pause
Meanwhile, Washington’s Arab partners will need to be pushed from the other direction in order to back humanitarian pauses, given that they are overwhelmingly demanding a more immediate and sustained ceasefire.
Arguably the most ardent backer of the ceasefire is Jordan, which submitted a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly last week that called for an end to the fighting in Gaza. Blinken will arrive in Jordan on Friday evening after spending the day in Israel.
While 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 regarding the Israel-Hamas war as possible, the US official said.
The official pointed to Washington’s calls for humanitarian pauses, increasing humanitarian aid, rejecting the permanent displacement of Palestinians and opposing a permanent Israeli occupation in Gaza as some of the stances that Arab allies could support, while adding that the Biden administration is aiming to reach agreements with participating countries regarding these issues before the summit, so that it doesn’t end without a diplomatic achievement.
The invite list for the summit has not yet been finalized, the US official clarified, while a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.
In the US as well, calls for a ceasefire are slowly spreading from a vocal far-left flank of the Democratic party.
Dick Durbin became the first US senator to express support for a ceasefire on Thursday while clarifying that it must include the release of all hostages in the Hamas-run enclave.
Durbin’s condition set him apart from the 18 Democrats from the far-left flank of his party who signed onto a resolution calling for a ceasefire, which made no mention of those kidnapped into Gaza. The Biden administration has thus 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 swatted away at calls to rein in Israel, telling reporters in London on Thursday, “We are not going to create any conditions on the support that we are giving Israel to defend itself.”
She also said, “We are not telling Israel how it should conduct this war,” but The Times of Israel’s aforementioned reporting has shown a more nuanced US approach in private.
Before departing for Tel Aviv on Thursday, Blinken told reporters that civilians have been “bear[ing] the brunt” of Israel’s military campaign targeting Hamas in Gaza and that in Israel he will be discussing “concrete steps” the IDF can take in order to protect civilians — some of the most forceful comments he has made yet, as the death count in Gaza crossed 9,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. Those numbers cannot be independently verified and do, however, include Palestinian terrorists as well as civilians killed by errant rockets fired by terror groups in Gaza.
Still, Blinken reiterated that Israel has a right and obligation to defend itself so that its people are not again massacred by Hamas.
The secretary also acknowledged that Hamas is “quite literally” the reason why civilians have been caught in the crossfire due to the terror group’s use of human shields and its placement of military infrastructure underneath or inside hospitals, schools and mosques.
Blinken said he has five main agenda items for his trip to the region: Strategizing with Israel about its military campaign; ensuring that the war doesn’t spread to additional fronts; continuing efforts to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza; helping evacuate all American citizens and foreign nationals who want to leave Gaza; securing the release of the hosts; and setting the conditions for an eventual two-state solution after the war is over.
In discussing Israel’s strategy for the war, Blinken will again press Jerusalem to start laying out its “day-after” scenario, a US official said.
Israel has thus far refused to publicly entertain the question of who will govern Gaza if it succeeds in its goal of toppling Hamas. Even privately, formal discussions have not escalated above the bureaucratic level of the various relevant ministries, a US official and an Israeli official said.
The vacuum has been filled by the US, which has jumped in to declare on Wednesday that it would like to see a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority return to ruling Gaza, with countries in the region and international agencies possibly playing an interim role until Ramallah is ready.
The proposal is part of the Biden administration’s desire to seize the opportunity created by the ongoing crisis to re-unify 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 its current hardline government, which continues to take steps to weaken Hamas’s more moderate PA rival. However, the right-wing coalition is viewed by many in Israel as having failed to protect the country on October 7, opening up the possibility that it will eventually be replaced by a more moderate group of parties.