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Blinken urges pauses in fighting to deliver aid for Gaza civilians

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, at the Ben-Gurion House on the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday during his visit to Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.  (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/TNS)
By Adam Entous and Thomas Fuller New York Times

TEL AVIV, Israel – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who traveled to Israel on Friday as the ground war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip escalated, urged protections for Palestinian noncombatants and “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting, even as he spoke of “solidarity” with Israel’s right to defend itself.

Soon after meeting with Blinken, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel appeared to rebuff the Biden administration’s call for pauses in the military campaign to allow more deliveries into Gaza of badly needed food, water, medicine and other supplies.

Netanyahu said that any cease-fire would be contingent on the release of Israeli hostages, many of them women and children, abducted in the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed at least 1,400.

“I have made clear that we are continuing forcefully, and that Israel refuses a temporary cease-fire that does not include the release of our hostages,” Netanyahu said. “Israel does not allow the entry of fuel to the Gaza Strip and opposes the transfer of funds to Gaza.”

The White House has been walking an increasingly narrow path between unambiguous support for Israel and international and domestic concern over civilian casualties in Gaza. President Joe Biden this week floated the idea of a pause in the fighting, part of a measured shift in the U.S. stance over the war in Gaza over the past three weeks.

“We stand strongly with and behind Israel in its right and obligation to defend itself, defend its people and take the steps necessary to try to ensure that this never happens again,” Blinken said in a news conference in Tel Aviv, referring to the Oct. 7 attacks. But he also spoke of “the imperative of doing everything possible to protect civilians, the imperative of doing everything possible to get assistance to those who need it.”

The Gaza health ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government, says that more than 9,200 people have been killed in the territory by Israeli airstrikes, a toll that has provoked outrage around the world. Gaza is also dangerously low on food, fuel and water. Doctors at some hospitals here say that because of shortages they have had to perform surgery without anesthesia.

On Friday, an explosion near the entrance of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City struck a convoy of ambulances carrying wounded people preparing to evacuate to Egypt, according to a Hamas spokesperson and the head of the hospital, Dr. Mohammad Abu Salmiya.

Thirteen people were killed and many others injured, Abu Salmiya said, adding that paramedics and patients being evacuated were among the injured.

Hamas blamed Israel for the explosion. The Israeli military said it had carried out an airstrike on an ambulance “being used by a Hamas terrorist cell,” adding in a statement that “a number of Hamas terrorist operatives were killed in the strike.” An Israeli military spokesperson, Maj. Nir Dinar, confirmed that it was the same strike that had caused the explosion outside the hospital.

The war has displaced hundreds of thousands of residents across the narrow territory. The U.N. agency that aids Palestinians said on Friday that at least 700,000 people had taken refuge in about 150 shelters it runs in Gaza.

Thomas White, who runs the agency’s Gaza division, said in an interview Thursday night that an average of about 4,000 people were staying in schools intended to host at most 1,500. “Our capacity to cope is stretched well beyond where we ever thought it would be,” he said.

The United Nations said Friday that it needed $1.2 billion to fund humanitarian efforts for Palestinians through the end of the year – more than four times what it asked for weeks ago. After nearly a month of war, “the situation has grown increasingly desperate,” said Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the U.N. humanitarian office.

The $1.2 billion appeal is for 2.7 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The United Nations has received just a quarter of the $294 million that it requested in mid-October, Laerke said, with the biggest external contributions coming from the United States ($24.5 million) and Japan ($7 million).

The 370 trucks carrying humanitarian aid and relief supplies that have crossed into Gaza through the Rafah gate on the Egyptian border since Oct. 21 have been vastly inadequate, aid agencies say. U.N. officials say that hundreds of trucks are needed daily to meet the needs of Gaza’s population. To enable a scaling-up of aid flows to Gaza, U.N. officials have called for the reopening of border crossings from Israel into Gaza, including at Kerem Shalom.

Some U.N. officials and diplomats have blamed Israeli security checks for delays in delivering aid, but Col. Elad Goren, a senior Israeli military officer, said in an interview that Israeli officials were ready to facilitate inspections of many more truckloads at Nitzana, a border post about 25 miles from Rafah.

“Israel will not be the bottleneck,” Goren said, adding that the issue was “the capacity of international organizations to absorb the aid via Rafah.” The colonel serves in COGAT, the Israeli agency overseeing policy for the Palestinian territories.

Hamas has been unapologetic about the gruesome Oct. 7 attacks that triggered the war, championing the violence and vowing to repeat it with the goal of annihilating Israel.

The Israeli military said Thursday that its troops had encircled Gaza City and were engaged in “face-to-face” battles with Hamas, whose members are entrenched in a network of tunnels.

Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, told a Lebanese television channel last week that the attack of Oct. 7 “was just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.”

Clips of the interview were published and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, a nonprofit monitoring group founded by an Israeli and an Israeli American that is based in Washington.

“We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do this again and again,” Hamad said.

During his visit in Tel Aviv, Blinken referred to the carnage of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, saying, “It is striking and, in some ways, shocking that the brutality of the slaughter has receded so quickly in the memories of so many.”

After his stop in Israel on Friday, Blinken left for talks in Amman, Jordan, with Jordanian leaders and other regional partners about securing the release of people abducted by Hamas, and about preventing the war from spreading.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.