US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Israel on Friday that it risks destroying an eventual possibility for peace unless it acts swiftly to improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza for Palestinian civilians as it intensifies its war against Hamas.
In a blunt call for Israel to pause military operations in the territory to allow for the immediate and increased delivery of assistance, Blinken said the current situation would drive Palestinians toward further radicalism and effectively end prospects for any eventual resumption of peace talks to end the conflict.
“There will be no partners for peace if they're consumed by humanitarian catastrophe and alienated by any perceived indifference to their plight," Blinken said, even as the call for a temporary pause without the release by Hamas of Israeli hostages was swiftly rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Israel would be “going with full steam ahead."
The comments to reporters in Tel Aviv, following meetings with Netanyahu and other senior officials, amounted to some of the Biden administration's strongest warnings to Israel since the brutal Oct 7 rampage by Hamas that killed more than 1,400 civilians and soldiers.
But the remarks were also tempered by Blinken's continued support for Israel's “right and obligation to defend itself, defend its people and take the steps necessary to try to ensure that this never happens again.”
He described being moved by additional video he'd been shown in Israel by the Hamas militants who carried out the attacks, including a father killed in front of his young children.
“It is striking, and in some ways shocking, that the brutality of the slaughter has receded so quickly in the memories of so many, but not in Israel and not in America,” he said.
At the same time, he said he was also shaken by images of dead and wounded Palestinian children in Gaza.
“When I see that, I see my own children. How can we not?” he said, adding “Hamas doesn't care one second or iota for the welfare and well-being of the Palestinian people.”
Blinken and other US officials have echoed Biden's call Wednesday for a “pause” in the fighting to allow for the release of hostages, underscoring the increasingly divergent views between the allies.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Friday that the US believes that a “fairly significant pause" will need to be put in place to allow for the release of the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Israel has insisted that the hostage release must precede any pause.
Blinken's Middle East trip came as US concerns escalated that the conflict in Gaza could spiral throughout the region. The leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group stoked fears that the war could widen by promising more attacks along the Lebanon border.
Blinken also said it was imperative for Israel, regional countries, the US and others to begin considering what the future of Gaza will look like if and when Hamas is destroyed. “There cannot and must not be a return to the pre-October 7 status quo,” he said.
In his first public speech since the war began, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said his group had “entered the battle” with the past weeks' unprecedented cross-border fighting. “We will not be limited to this,” he said, suggesting escalation was possible. Still, Nasrallah stopped short of announcing that Hezbollah is fully engaging in the war.
He said the idea of Hamas remaining responsible for the governance Gaza, thereby posing a continued threat to Israel, was “unacceptable." But he also said that Israel could not re-occupy Gaza.
“Within those parameters we will continue to have discussions in the region and our partners about what should follow once Hamas is defeated," Blinken said.
But the complexity of the situation — and of Blinken's push for Israel to consider a pause — was laid bare on Friday when Netanyahu, after leaving the meeting with the American official, ruled out the possibility of a cease-fire “that doesn't include a return of our hostages,” referring to some 240 people Hamas abducted during its attack.
To assist Israel in locating those hostages, the US is flying MQ-9 drones over Gaza to gather intelligence and help locate where those people are being held, a US official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing operations.
Since the attacks, families of the hostages have increased pressure on the Israeli and US governments to find them and bring them home before Israel carries through with any large-scale ground operations. The drone use was first reported by Reuters.