• Associated Press

Blinken Urges Israel to Engage with Region on Postwar Plans That Include Path to Palestinian State

AP Photo/Hatem Ali
Palestinians line up for free food during the ongoing Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on Israel to work with moderate Palestinians and neighboring countries on plans for postwar Gaza, saying they were willing to help rebuild and govern the territory but only if there is a “pathway to a Palestinian state.”

The U.S. and Israel are united in the war against Hamas but sharply divided over Gaza’s future, with Washington and its Arab allies hoping to revive the long-moribund peace process, an idea that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners sharply oppose.

The war in Gaza is still raging, with no end in sight, and fueling a humanitarian catastrophe in the tiny coastal enclave. The fighting has also stoked escalating violence between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants that has raised fears of a wider conflict.

Speaking at a news conference after meeting with top Israeli leaders, Blinken said Israel “must stop taking steps that undercut the Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves effectively.”

Israel, he added “must be a partner of the Palestinian leaders who are willing to lead their people” and live “side by side in peace with Israel.” Settler violence, settlement expansion, home demolitions and evictions “all make it harder, not easier, for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security.”

U.S. officials have called for the Palestinian Authority, which currently administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to take the reins in Gaza. Israeli leaders have rejected that idea but have not put forward a concrete plan beyond saying they will maintain open-ended military control over the territory.

Blinken has said that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey agreed to begin planning for the reconstruction and governance of Gaza once the war ends. The leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are set to meet Wednesday in Jordan’s southern Red Sea city of Aqaba.

HEAVY FIGHTING IN GAZA

The United States, which has provided crucial military and diplomatic support for Israel’s offensive, has pressed it to shift to more precise operations targeting Hamas. But the pace of death and destruction has remained largely the same, with hundreds killed in recent days.

Israel has vowed to keep going until it destroys Hamas, which triggered the war with its Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel. Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducted around 250 others, nearly half of whom were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November.

The Israeli military says it has dismantled Hamas infrastructure in northern Gaza — where entire neighborhoods have been demolished — but is still battling small groups of militants. The offensive’s focus has shifted to the southern city of Khan Younis and built-up refugee camps in central Gaza.

“The fighting will continue throughout 2024,” said Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a military spokesman.

Since the war began, Israel’s assault in Gaza has killed more than 23,200 Palestinians, roughly 1% of the territory’s population, and more than 58,000 people have been wounded, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. About two-thirds of the dead are women and children. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

A strike late Monday hit a house in the central town of Deir al-Balah, killing the mother, three daughters and three small grandchildren of Jamal Naeim, a well-known dentist in Gaza. Outside the hospital, Naeim cradled a small bundle of white cloth containing all that remained of one of his adult daughters, Shaimaa, who was also a dentist.

“This is what we found of her, just the skin of her head and her hair,” he said, breaking into sobs. Naeim is the brother of Bassem Naeim, a political figure in Hamas, but is not a member of the group himself, residents said.

At least eight people were killed when a strike hit a five-story residential building in Rafah in southern Gaza on Tuesday, Palestinian Health officials said. Six of the bodies were taken to nearby Al-Kuwaiti Hospital and were counted by an Associated Press journalist. Two other corpses were transported to Youssef al-Najjar Hospital, also in Rafah, according to Dr. Sohaib al-Hams, who works at Al-Kuwaiti Hospital.

Monday was one of the deadliest days yet for Israeli troops in Gaza, with nine killed, according to the military. Six of them died in an accidental blast when forces were preparing a controlled demolition of a weapons production site in central Gaza, the military said.

It says 185 soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began in late October.

A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Nearly 85% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have been driven from their homes by the fighting, and a quarter of its residents face starvation, with only a trickle of food, water, medicine and other supplies entering through an Israeli siege.

The U.N. humanitarian office, known as OCHA, warned that the fighting was severely hampering aid deliveries. Several warehouses, distribution centers, health facilities and shelters have been affected by the military’s evacuation orders, it said.

The situation is even more dire in northern Gaza, which Israeli forces cut off from the rest of the territory in late October. Tens of thousands of people who remain there face shortages of food and water.

The World Health Organization has been unable to deliver supplies to the north for two weeks. OCHA said the military rejected five planned aid convoys to the north over that period, including deliveries of medical supplies and fuel for water and sanitation facilities.

Blinken said more food, water, medicine and other aid needs to enter and be distributed effectively. He called on Israel to “do everything it can to remove any obstacles from crossings to other parts of Gaza.”

FEARS OF A WIDER CONFLICT

The war in Gaza has threatened to trigger a wider conflict, with Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah trading escalating strikes following the killing of Hamas’ deputy political leader in Beirut last week.

On Tuesday, Hezbollah said its exploding drones targeted the Israeli army’s northern command in the town of Safed — deeper into Israel than previous fire by the group. The Israeli military said a drone fell at a base in the north without causing damage, suggesting it had been intercepted. Military officials did not identify the base.

Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon meanwhile killed at least four Hezbollah members, including one who was killed in the village where a funeral was held for a Hezbollah commander killed the day before.

Israel claimed the man killed ahead of the funeral, Ali Hussein Barji, was in charge of Hezbollah’s drones in the south, but a Hezbollah official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with the group’s regulations, said he was only a fighter.