DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to the Mideast this week pressing for agreements to extend the Gaza cease-fire, step up the release of hostages held by Hamas and limit Palestinian civilian casualties if fighting with Israel resumed. He left Friday with his goals largely unfulfilled.
Blinken wrapped up his third Middle East tour since the Israel-Hamas war started in October with decidedly mixed results. He watched as the seven-day cease-fire agreement collapsed under new Hamas attacks and Israeli airstrikes.
And, it remained uncertain if Israel would follow through on commitments to protect Palestinian civilians from military operations in the southern Gaza Strip, as he warned they should, or whether Hamas would engage in future hostage negotiations.
Blinken arrived in Israel on Thursday with hopes to see a further extension of the cease-fire agreement under which Israel had halted most military operations in exchange for the release of hostages held by Hamas.
Blinken said Friday that Hamas bore the blame for the failure while the U.S. would continue to push for extensions to release hostages and boost the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Yet, he also warned Israel that it must adhere to international laws of war as it prosecutes its campaign to eradicate Hamas.
“It came to an end because of Hamas,” Blinken said of the cease-fire. “Hamas reneged on commitments it made. In fact, even before the pause came to an end, it committed an atrocious terrorist attack in Jerusalem, killing three people, wounding others, including Americans.”
“It began firing rockets before the pause had ended and, as I said, it reneged on commitments it made in terms of releasing certain hostages. We remain intensely focused on getting everyone home, getting hostages back,” Blinken told reporters in the United Arab Emirates. "We’re still at this.”
His comments came after he met with Arab foreign ministers in Dubai on Friday to discuss the Gaza situation on the sidelines of the COP28 climate change conference. Blinken saw his counterparts from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority, according to the State Department.
He said they discussed the need to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza, to secure the release of hostages, protect innocent life and begin to plan for a post-conflict Gaza, an issue that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many Arab leaders have been loath to discuss while the hostilities are continuing.
A day earlier, he had said in Tel Aviv that “the way Israel defends itself matters. It’s imperative that Israel act in accordance with international humanitarian law and the laws of war, even when confronting a terrorist group that respects neither.”
But as he left the region it appeared uncertain that Israel would follow through on commitments it made to him to protect Palestinian civilians from military operations in the southern Gaza Strip or that Hamas would engage in future negotiations over hostage releases.
“We saw Israel take steps immediately today to start to get information to people about where safe areas are, how they can get out of harm’s way,” he said, referring to leaflets dropped by Israel informing Palestinians in Gaza that their neighborhoods would be targeted and they should leave.
“I haven’t had a chance to see exactly what happened today,” he said when asked about reports that the Hamas-controlled Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said more than 100 people were killed in Israeli strikes on Friday.
“I saw the plans that Israel has in a multiplicity of ways to do everything possible to protect civilians, including making sure that they have the information they need and there are ways to accommodate them,” Blinken said. “This is going to be very important going forward. It’s something we’re going to be looking at very closely.”
During his visit, Blinken lauded accomplishments he said the Biden administration had achieved in intensive diplomacy conducted by himself, the White House and the CIA: an increase in aid to Gaza, the release of some 100 hostages and the exit from Gaza of some foreign nationals.
Still, as he left the region, the major question remained unanswered. What happens if and when Israel wins?
“It is important for us to be talking about and thinking about every aspect of this challenge – not only today but also what happens the day after the conflict in Gaza is over,” Blinken said. “How are we thinking about what happens in Gaza itself? How is it governed? Where does the security come from? How do we begin to rebuild? And critically, how we get on a path to invest in lasting peace. And for us, of course, that has to result in a state for the Palestinians.”