US tells world to support Israeli strikes in Gaza as civilian toll rises

Antony J. Blinken is in the middle of his most intensive trip yet as America’s top diplomat, traveling to at least seven countries across the Middle East in four days to lend support to Israel as it wages war against Hamas.

During the whirlwind tour, which was sometimes guarded by security officers in bulletproof vests, the secretary of state broadcast several American messages at once. He made it clear that the United States fully supports Israel’s counterattack in response to Hamas’s cross-border incursion, which has killed more than 1,300 people.

He sought to persuade Arab countries to limit their criticism – no easy task as devastating Israeli strikes have killed around 1,900 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Mr. Blinken and his top aides also discussed with their hosts efforts to free hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, including what US officials say may be some American citizens kidnapped from Israel on Saturday. And he tried to ensure that the conflict did not expand to draw in other enemies of Israel, such as Iran or the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.

Mr Blinken landed in Israel on Thursday, less than a week after Hamas gunmen attacked towns in the southern part of the country.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III arrived in Tel Aviv a day later with a similar message of support.

After visiting Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on Friday, Mr. Blinken plans to continue his journey to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

His trips come as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reaches a level of violence not seen in years and poses myriad new challenges to President Biden’s foreign policy, which has been focused on defending Ukraine and countering Chinese power.

Mr. Blinken’s travels reflected the tension for the Biden administration. Comparing the crimes committed by Hamas to those of the Islamic State, Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken is intended to send a clear message that the United States strongly supports Israel’s actions in Gaza and that countries in the region should do the same.

“Israel has the right and even the obligation to defend its people,” Mr. Blinken said at a press conference in Doha, Qatar. “What Israel is doing is not retaliation. What Israel is doing is defending the lives of its people,” and, he added, “is trying to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

“Imagine if this happened in the United States,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Blinken expressed, albeit more gently and in terms that may sound pro forma, some concern about the potential impact on Gaza’s largely impoverished Palestinian population of two million

“But at the same time,” he said in Doha, “how Israel does it is important.” Mr Blinken said he had spoken to Israeli officials about the need to ensure that civilians were not harmed.

He then added that Hamas “uses civilians as human shields” – a line that suggests an understanding that Israeli attacks will necessarily involve many innocent victims.

Biden administration officials understand that while Israel has been basked in international goodwill this week, criticism will grow among Americans and citizens of other countries as it carries out what it says is a long military offensive in Gaza.

Despite this, Mr. Blinken has signaled in his travels that the Biden administration will have a high tolerance for any results of an Israeli military response.

During his first stop, at a military base in Tel Aviv, where normally-suited diplomatic security officers donned camouflage military gear, Mr. Blinken delivered a message directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “We will always be there for you. ”

“Too often in the past, leaders have wavered in the face of terrorist attacks on Israel and its people,” Mr. Blinken said. “This is — this must be — a moment for moral clarity.”

Mr. Blinken is taking that message to the Arab nations he is visiting until Sunday. Of those countries, only the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have explicitly condemned Hamas for its attacks.

Qatar the first statement after the attack, Israel was said to be “solely responsible” for the violence against its own citizens due to the blockade of Gaza. Saudi Arabia issued a statement outlining a similar case.

In a statement on Friday, Jordan’s government said the country’s monarch, King Abdullah, had pressed Mr Blinken on the need for humanitarian corridors and aid in Gaza, and “warned of collective punishment of the people of Gaza”. It did not contain a condemnation of Hamas.

Such talk underscores the challenges for Mr. Blinken among Arab nations. But it also belies the private discomfort many Arab leaders have with Hamas, said Dennis Ross, who has been a Middle East adviser to several presidents and is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Blinken’s challenge, he said, is to “remind everyone that Hamas cannot be considered a winner. Hamas must be seen as decisively losing.”

“Anyone who sees it in person will agree,” Mr. Ross said.

Mr. Blinken accomplished two other key goals on his trip.

One is that the nations in contact with Hezbollah and Iran tell them not to get involved in the war. The second is for countries with influence over Hamas to help fight for the release of about 150 hostages taken on Saturday. Mr. Blinken was accompanied on the trip by Steve Gillen, the US deputy special envoy for hostage issues, who remained in Israel after his departure.

Mr. Biden joined Friday’s call with Mr. Gillen’s boss, Roger Carstens, the special envoy for hostage issues, and other top officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, White House officials said.

Qatar is a key interlocutor, which makes Mr. Blinken’s stop there particularly sensitive. Officials in Doha are in talks with Iran, host offices of Hamas leaders and have brokered the release of hostages and prisoners in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

“I am grateful for the urgency Qatar is putting into this effort,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference Friday in Doha with Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani.

When asked by reporters whether his government would continue to allow Hamas to operate in Doha, which has come under sharp criticism from Israel’s supporters, Mr. Al Thani called the office useful “as a way of communicating and bringing peace and tranquility to the region.”

In language clearly aimed at Israel, Mr Al Thani also said Qatar was opposed to “collective punishment” and “hitting and targeting civilians, women and children”.

In Qatar, Mr. Blinken did not publicly address the issue of Hamas’ presence in the country, although he said generally that, after Saturday’s “reckless” attacks, “it can no longer be business as usual with Hamas.”

“You would expect him to be much more open in private,” Mr Ross said.

It is expected that Mr. Blinken is scheduled to make a stop in the Saudi capital of Riyadh to discuss how the conflict could affect months of negotiations to reach an agreement that could officially normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The deal would include US concessions to Riyadh, such as a security agreement.

Since the Hamas attack and the start of Israel’s military campaign against the Palestinians, Saudi officials have taken a wait-and-see attitude before moving forward with normalization talks. John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters on Friday that the United States continues to support the Saudi-Israeli deal.

“But obviously, these are sovereign nations,” he added. “They can decide for themselves at what pace they are willing to move, under what conditions – and certainly the degree to which they want to continue those efforts.”

During his visit to Israel, Mr. Austin met with Israeli leaders and also reaffirmed US support for its new offensive against Hamas.

Mr. Austin arrived from Brussels, where he attended a meeting of NATO defense ministers. He has seen firsthand some of the weapons and security aid that the Biden administration rushed to Israel after last weekend’s attacks. A second shipment of weapons arrived on Friday, Israeli officials said.

Asked about the likelihood of civilian casualties in Gaza as Israeli troops prepare for a major ground offensive, Mr Austin said Israel had the right to defend itself. He added that he worked with the Israeli forces for years while he was the army’s chief general.

“They are professional, disciplined and focused on the right things,” he told reporters after a nearly two-hour meeting with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant and Israel’s war cabinet.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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