May 23, 2024

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Israeli officials to improve the facilitation of humanitarian aid supplies to Gaza amid warnings from the United Nations and aid agencies of a looming famine in parts of the war-ravaged Palestinian territory.

Blinken on Wednesday travelled to Kerem Shalom, an Israeli entry point into Gaza about 3km (2 miles) from the southern city of Rafah that is known to Palestinians as Karem Abu Salem. The top United States diplomat also visited Israel’s main port, Ashdod, highlighting “progress” made in recent weeks on humanitarian access, but stressed once again that more needs to be done.

“The progress is real but given the need, given the immense need in Gaza, it needs to be accelerated, it needs to be sustained,” he said. Blinken asked Israel’s government to take a set of specific steps to facilitate aid to Gaza, where nearly half the population are suffering catastrophic hunger, he said.

Israel has sought to demonstrate it is not blocking aid to Gaza, especially since US President Joe Biden issued a stark warning to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying Washington’s policy could shift if Israel fails to take steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.

Earlier on Wednesday, Jordan’s foreign ministry said Israeli settlers attacked two of its humanitarian aid convoys as they made their way towards Gaza.

“Two Jordanian aid convoys carrying food, flour and other humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip were attacked by settlers,” the ministry said, without giving details of what happened.

Jordanian public service media outlet Al-Mamlaka TV reported that a Jordanian aid convoy consisting of 31 trucks entered Gaza via the Beit Hanoon crossing, known as the Erez crossing to Israelis. This is its first opening since the start of the war.

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Rafah

During his earlier meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken also reiterated that Washington would not support a military operation in Rafah without a plan to ensure civilians were protected.

“We cannot, will not support a major military operation in Rafah absent an effective plan to make sure that civilians are not harmed and no, we’ve not seen such a plan,” Blinken told reporters.

The United Nations and humanitarian groups have long warned that a military operation there, where more than 1.5 million people are crammed in, would cause a catastrophe.

“There are other ways, and in our judgement better ways, of dealing with the … ongoing challenge of Hamas that does not require a major military operation in Rafah,” he said, adding that it was the subject of ongoing talks with Israeli officials.

But an Israeli government spokesperson said Israel remained determined to destroy the remaining Hamas fighting formations.

“When it comes to Rafah – we are committed to remove the last four of five Hamas battalions in Rafah – we are sharing our plans with Secretary of State Blinken,” the spokesperson told a regular briefing.

While facing international calls to hold off on any Rafah offensive, Netanyahu has faced pressure from the religious nationalist partners he depends on for the survival of his coalition government to press ahead.

Negotiations

Israel is the final stop on the top US diplomat’s Middle East tour amid renewed efforts to secure a ceasefire and exchange of hostages for prisoners.

Blinken urged Hamas to accept a truce deal proposed by Egyptian mediators, which would see 33 hostages released in exchange for a larger number of Palestinian prisoners and a halt to the fighting, with the possibility of further steps towards a comprehensive deal later.

“Israel has made very important compromises,” he said. “There’s no time for further haggling. The deal is there. They [Hamas] should take it.”

A senior official for Hamas said the group was studying the proposed deal and accused Blinken of failing to respect both sides and described Israel as the real obstacle.

“Blinken’s comments contradict reality,” Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

Israel is holding off sending a delegation to Cairo for follow-up truce talks, pending a response from Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, an Israeli official told Reuters. “Only after he responds will we decide what to do.”

Israeli media reported on Wednesday that Netanyahu was still refusing to accept Hamas’s central demand that any deal would have to include a permanent ceasefire and a withdrawal of Israeli troops.

The Israeli news site Ynet, citing the Prime Minister’s Office, said Netanyahu told Blinken a Rafah operation “was not contingent on anything” and that he rejected any truce proposals that would end the Gaza war.

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