Blinken heads to Israel seeking 'concrete measures' to spare civilians

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks to reporters prior to boarding his aircraft at Joint Base Andrews on his way to the Middle East and Asia (JONATHAN ERNST)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks to reporters prior to boarding his aircraft at Joint Base Andrews on his way to the Middle East and Asia (JONATHAN ERNST)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday he would seek "concrete measures" from Israel to minimize harm to Gaza civilians as he headed on his second crisis trip to the Middle East since a Hamas assault triggered a war.

President Joe Biden has promised full support and ramped-up military aid to Israel for its retaliatory strikes in Gaza, but in a visible shift of tone has also voiced empathy for Palestinian suffering which has stoked anger in parts of the world.

"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 flew out of Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

"This is something that the United States is committed to," he said, a day before his latest meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

His remarks come a day after Biden said the United States wanted Israel to allow humanitarian "pauses" to let through aid and people.

The United States, however, opposes calls from across the Arab world and some European allies for a ceasefire, saying Hamas has no intention of stopping attacks and would only use a truce to regroup.

"When I see a Palestinian child -- a boy, a girl -- pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building, that hits me in the gut as much as seeing a child in Israel or anywhere else," Blinken said.

"So this is something that we have an obligation to respond to, and we will."

- More Americans leave -

A key concern for the United States is bringing out US citizens from Gaza, with Palestinian-American groups filing lawsuits alleging that the State Department did more for Israeli-Americans in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack.

US officials say efforts were impeded by the active war but that diplomacy -- including between Blinken and Qatar, which has relations with Hamas -- led to some people leaving Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt on Wednesday.

Biden told reporters 74 US citizens left on Thursday, in addition to five the first day.

Blinken will spend the day Friday in Israel -- his fourth visit since the Hamas assault, including a trip to accompany Biden -- and also head to Jordan and potentially other stops before a previously scheduled trip to Asia.

Jordan, which was the second Arab nation to make peace with Israel, has withdrawn its ambassador to protest the "unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe" caused by the "ongoing Israeli war."

- Looking at 'the day after' -

Biden has vocally backed Israel despite his previously rocky relationship with Netanyahu, who leads Israel's most right-wing government in history with members staunchly opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Blinken said the Biden administration still believed that a two-state solution was "the best guarantor -- maybe the only guarantor -- of a secure Jewish democratic Israel and a Palestinian state to which they're entitled to."

"We're focused on the day of; we also need to be focused on the day after," Blinken said.

The Biden administration has been openly critical over Israel's lack of action in the West Bank -- administered not by Hamas but the rival Palestinian Authority -- against settlers who have attacked Palestinians in tandem with the war in Gaza.

Testifying before Congress earlier this week, Blinken said the Palestinian Authority -- which Netanyahu has long sought to sideline -- should eventually take over in the Gaza Strip after an elimination of Hamas.

Hamas militants stormed into Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7, and killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death on the first day of the raid, according to Israeli officials, in the deadliest attack in country's 75-year history.

Across the Gaza Strip more than 9,000 have been killed, including 3,760 children, in relentless Israeli bombardments in retaliation for the attacks by the Islamist militant group, according to the latest toll from the Hamas health ministry in Gaza.