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regular-article-logo Thursday, 29 February 2024

Joe Biden says 74 US dual nationals have left Gaza Strip as he dispatches Antony Blinken to Mideast

The White House has previously said some 500 to 600 US citizens had been trapped in Gaza since the start of the Oct 7 Israel-Hamas war. Since then, the conflict continues to rage on with no end in sight

AP Washington Published 03.11.23, 02:26 AM
Joe Biden.

Joe Biden. File Photo

President Joe Biden said Thursday that 74 US citizens with dual citizenship have left the Gaza Strip, announcing the development as he dispatched his top diplomat to the Middle East for consultation with Israeli and Jordanian leaders concerning the Israel-Hamas war.

"We got out today 74 American folks out that are dual citizens," Biden said in a brief exchange with reporters as he hosted Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader for an Oval Office meeting.

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The White House has previously said some 500 to 600 US citizens had been trapped in Gaza since the start of the Oct 7 Israel-Hamas war. Since then, the conflict continues to rage on with no end in sight.

The administration said earlier this week that five Americans were among dozens of dual citizens who were able to get out of the Strip where a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the administration was hopeful that additional US citizens will be able to leave Gaza on Thursday and the pace of Americans who want to leave will now move at an accelerated pace.

Kirby said Qatar, which maintains lines of communication with Hamas, was particularly helpful in smoothing the way for the Americans to be able to leave Gaza.

Biden made the announcement as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken set off for another frenzied trip to the Middle East. Blinken is returning to the region with a somewhat more nuanced message than he offered in the immediate aftermath of Hamas' bloody attack on Israel and Israel's military response.

As he did last month, Blinken will stress US support for Israel and try to prevent a wider Mideast war as he visits Israel and Jordan starting on Friday. But Blinken's agenda this time is more crowded and more complex as the conflict intensifies and the Biden administration grapples with competing domestic and international interests and anger.

He'll push for the evacuation of more foreigners from Gaza and more humanitarian aid for the territory. He'll press Israel to rein in violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank committed by Jewish settlers. And, he'll stress the importance of protecting civilians — even though the administration has yet to offer any criticism of Israel for strikes that have killed thousands of civilians in Gaza.

"We will be talking about concrete steps that can and should be taken to minimize harm to men, women and children in Gaza," Blinken told reporters as he departed for a trip that will take him to Israel and Jordan. Further stops in the Middle East are possible, "This is something that the United States is committed to."

Blinken, while calling for brief pauses in airstrikes and fighting for humanitarian purposes is expected to continue to oppose growing calls for a broader cease-fire. Biden said Wednesday he thought there should be a humanitarian pause in the Israel-Hamas war in order to get "prisoners" out.

But, Blinken will also be introducing a new element to the US list of priorities: the need for Israel and its neighbours to begin to consider what a post-conflict Gaza will look like, who will govern it, how it can be made secure and how to establish an independent Palestinian state.

US officials, including Biden and Blinken, have said repeatedly that they do not believe an Israeli re-occupation of Gaza is feasible, and Israel agrees. But what comes next has been little explored beyond brief comments Blinken made Tuesday in congressional testimony when he talked about the possibility of a revitalised Palestinian Authority and perhaps Arab states and international organisations playing a significant role in post-conflict Gaza.

Blinken said he would speak on the US' commitment to working with partners to set the conditions for a durable peace in the Middle East, including through the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Biden administration in recent days has stepped up calls for Israel and Palestinians to refocus on finding agreement on a long-sought two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict once the war ends.

The push for a two-state solution — one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state — has long eluded US presidents and Middle East diplomats and had been on the back burner by Biden early in his tenure.

Blinken said Palestinian sovereignty is "the best guarantor, and maybe the only guarantor of a secure Jewish democratic Israel."

The change in messaging reflects a shift in the international view of the war, of which Blinken has heard plenty since his last trip to the region when he travelled to Israel and six Arab states — several multiple times — in a frenetic shuttle diplomacy mission that required numerous last-minute schedule changes.

His itinerary after Jordan remains uncertain, although he will attend a Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in Japan next week before travelling on to South Korea and India for much broader discussions, including on Russia's war in Ukraine and China.

The shift in public opinion has been palpable. After receiving a wave of global sympathy after the Oct 7 attacks, Israel now faces widespread criticism for its massive military response, something that many believe is fuelling a worldwide spike in anti-semitic violence as well as incidents targeting Muslims.

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