Blinken says Israeli assault on Gaza's Rafah would be a 'mistake', isn't needed to defeat Hamas | World News - Hindustan Times

Blinken says Israeli assault on Gaza's Rafah would be a 'mistake', isn't needed to defeat Hamas

AP |
Mar 22, 2024 01:01 AM IST

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that continued Israeli strikes on Rafah are a “mistake”, and won't play a part in defeating Hamas.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday a major Israeli ground assault on the southern Gaza town of Rafah would be “a mistake” and unnecessary to defeating Hamas, underscoring the further souring of relations between the United States and Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (AP)

Blinken, on his sixth urgent Mideast mission since the war began, spoke after huddling with top Arab diplomats in Cairo for discussions over efforts for a cease-fire and over ideas for Gaza's post-conflict future. He said an “immediate, sustained ceasefire” with the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas was urgently needed and that gaps were narrowing in indirect negotiations that U.S., Egypt and Qatar have spent weeks mediating.

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Blinken heads to Israel on Friday to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet. The growing disagreements between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden over the prosecution of the war will likely overshadow the talks — particularly over Netanyahu's determination to launch a ground assault on Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge from devastating Israeli ground and air strikes further north.

Netanyahu has said that without an invasion of Rafah, Israel can't achieve its goal of destroying Hamas after its deadly Oct. 7 attack and taking of hostages that triggered Israel's bombardment and offensive in Gaza.

“A major military operation in Rafah would be a mistake, something we don’t support. And, it’s also not necessary to deal with Hamas, which is necessary,” Blinken told a news conference in Cairo. A major offensive would mean more civilian deaths and worsen Gaza's humanitarian crisis, he said, adding that his talks on Rafah in Israel on Friday and next week in Washington will be to share alternative action.

Netanyahu, on a roughly 45-minute call with GOP senators on Wednesday, pledged to ignore warnings about a Rafah operation. He also took aim at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s condemnation last week of the civilian death toll in Gaza and his call for new elections in Israel in a speech that Biden later said was “good.”

Netanyahu stressed that Israel would move ahead in Rafah, according to senators who participated in the meeting. Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said Netanyahu “made it very clear that he and the people of Israel intend to prosecute the war to the full extent of their power and that he would not be dictated to by Senator Schumer or President Biden.”

Netanyahu’s vow to go into Rafah has alarmed the U.S. and others, who say it will result in an even larger humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza without a credible plan in place to get civilians out. U.S. officials have said they have yet to see such a plan and are prepared to offer alternatives to an all-out assault on the city.

As Blinken and the Arab ministers met, Gaza’s Health Ministry raised the territory’s death toll to nearly 32,000 Palestinians since the war began on its soil. Also, U.N. officials stepped up warnings that famine is “imminent” in northern Gaza.

The Cairo talks gathered Blinken with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a top official from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the internationally recognized body representing the Palestinian people. They also discussed ways to increase urgent humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza by land, air and sea.

In an earlier meeting with Blinken, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi stressed the need for an immediate cease-fire and warned against the “dangerous repercussions” of any Israeli offensive in Rafah, according to a statement issued by el-Sissi’s spokesperson.

Both parties had renewed their rejection of the forced displacement of Gazans and agreed on the importance of taking all necessary measures to ensure the arrival of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, the statement said.

Blinken said “gaps are narrowing” in talks over a cease-fire. A day earlier at his tour's first stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Blinken told the Saudi Al-Hadath network that the mediators had worked with Israel to put a “strong proposal” on the table. He said Hamas rejected it, but came back with other demands that the mediators are working on.

Netanyahu’s office said Thursday that the head of the Mossad spy agency will return to Qatar on Friday to meet with the head of the CIA and other key mediators in the talks. The office said Thursday that Qatar’s prime minister and Egypt’s intelligence chief would also join the talks.

The United States is seeking a swift vote on a newly revised and tougher U.N. resolution demanding “an immediate and sustained cease-fire” to protect civilians and enable humanitarian aid to be delivered. The U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N., Robert Wood, said he hoped a vote could take place by the end of the week.

Netanyahu has also rejected the Biden administration's repeated remonstrations that Israel's long-term security cannot be assured without the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

A clear path and deadline for the formation of a Palestinian state are key requirements for Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel, something Netanyahu is keen to achieve. Blinken spent much of his time in Jeddah with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussing the normalization process, which would also include U.S.-Saudi agreements.

With tensions running high after not speaking for a month, Biden and Netanyahu held a phone call on Monday during which Netanyahu agreed to send a team of experts to Washington to discuss the Rafah plans. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will also visit Washington separately next week.

The war began after Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in the surprise Oct. 7 attack out of Gaza that triggered the war, and abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

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