Blinken says toll on Gaza civilians from Israeli military offensive is still ‘too high’

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

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JERUSALEM – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the toll from Israel’s military offensive on Gaza’s civilians remains “too high.”

Blinken made the comments Wednesday as he was in the region seeking to broker a ceasefire that would pause the fighting.

Blinken said the Israeli offensive, launched in response to a deadly Hamas cross-border attack on Oct. 7, is “fully justified.”

But he expressed concern about the effects of the offensive on Gaza civilians. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting, and the offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and led to a humanitarian crisis.

“As I told the prime minister and other Israeli officials, the daily toll that its military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high,” Blinken said.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected Hamas’ terms for a ceasefire and hostage-release agreement, vowing to continue the war until “absolute victory” and dismissing any arrangement that leaves the militant group in full or partial control of Gaza.

Netanyahu’s remarks, made as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the region to try to broker a ceasefire deal, signalled that the painstaking diplomacy could be derailed. The comments also underscored how wide the chasm between Israel and Hamas remains as the war enters its fifth month.

Netanyahu said military pressure was the best way to free the roughly 100 hostages held in captivity in the Gaza Strip, where they were taken after Hamas’ cross-border rampage into southern Israel on Oct. 7, which sparked the war.

The prime minister was responding to a detailed, three-phase plan by Hamas that would unfold over 4 1/2 months. The plan, which came as a response to a proposal drawn up by the United States, Israel, Qatar and Egypt, stipulates that all hostages would be released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including senior militants, and an end to the war.

Israeli activists set up tents for blocking trucks carrying humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza, in southern Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. The activists say no aid should enter the territory until Israeli hostages held captive by the Hamas militant group are released. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)Israel has made destroying Hamas’ governing and military abilities one of its wartime objectives, and Hamas’ proposal would effectively leave it in power in Gaza and allow it to rebuild its military capabilities.

“Surrendering to Hamas’ delusional demands that we heard now not only won’t lead to freeing the captives, it will just invite another massacre,” Netanyahu said in a nationally televised evening news conference.

Following Netanyahu’s remarks, Hamas official Osama Hamdan said a delegation would travel to Cairo for more talks, a sign that the negotiations would continue.

Blinken, who was in the region for the fifth time since the war erupted, is trying to advance the ceasefire talks while pushing for a larger postwar settlement in which Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel in return for a “clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

But the increasingly unpopular Netanyahu is opposed to Palestinian statehood, and his hawkish governing coalition could collapse if he is seen as making too many concessions.

Earlier, Blinken told Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog that “a lot of work” remains in bringing the sides toward an agreement. Blinken was scheduled to give a news conference later Wednesday.

Hamas spells out demands for hostage deal

Hamas’ response to the ceasefire proposal was published in Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to the powerful Hezbollah militant group.

A Hamas official and two Egyptian officials confirmed its authenticity. A fourth official familiar with the talks later clarified the sequencing of the releases. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media on the negotiations.

In the first 45-day phase, Hamas would release all remaining women and children, as well as older and sick men, in exchange for an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Israel would also withdraw from populated areas, cease aerial operations, allow far more aid to enter and permit Palestinians to return to their homes, including in devastated northern Gaza.

The second phase, to be negotiated during the first, would include the release of all remaining hostages, mostly soldiers, in exchange for all Palestinian detainees over the age of 50, including senior militants. Israel would release an additional 1,500 prisoners, 500 of whom would be specified by Hamas, and complete its withdrawal from Gaza.

In the third phase, the sides would exchange the remains of hostages and prisoners.

Victory ‘a matter of months’

At the news conference where he responded to Hamas’ demands, Netanyahu said the Israeli military had achieved many of the goals it set out and that victory was “a matter of months” away.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday Jan. 7, 2024. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP)He said forces had dismantled 18 out of Hamas’ 24 battalions, destroyed tunnels and killed militants, and that military pressure on Hamas was the best way to bring about the release of the hostages. He said preparations were underway for the military to move into the southern Gaza border town of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have crammed to flee the fighting.

“We are on the way to an absolute victory,” Netanyahu said. “There is no other solution.”

Hamas has continued to put up stiff resistance across the territory, and its police force has returned to the streets in places where Israeli troops have pulled back.

Netanyahu ruled out any arrangement that leaves Hamas in control of any part of Gaza. He also said that Israel is the “only power” capable of guaranteeing security in the long term.

In a news conference immediately after his appearance, hostages freed in a late November deal said they were worried Netanyahu was taking too hard a line and that the remaining hostages and their families would pay the price.

“If you continue in this approach of seeking the collapse of Hamas, there won’t be any hostages to free,” said a tearful Adina Moshe, who was freed nearly 50 days into her captivity. Hamas is still holding over 130 hostages, but around 30 of them are believed to be dead, with the vast majority killed on Oct. 7.

Misery deepens in devastated Gaza

There is little talk of grand diplomatic bargains in Gaza, where Palestinians yearn for an end to fighting that has upended every aspect of their lives.

“We pray to God that it stops,” said Ghazi Abu Issa, who fled his home and sought shelter in the central town of Deir al-Balah. “There is no water, electricity, food or bathrooms.” Those living in tents have been drenched by winter rains and flooding. “We have been humiliated,” he said.

New mothers struggle to get baby formula and diapers, which can only be bought at vastly inflated prices if they can be found at all. Some have resorted to feeding solid food to babies younger than six months old despite the health risks it poses.

The Palestinian death toll from four months of war has reached 27,707, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. That includes 123 bodies brought to hospitals in just the last 24 hours, it said Wednesday. At least 11,000 wounded people need to be urgently evacuated from Gaza, it said.

The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures but says most of the dead have been women and children.

Israel has ordered Palestinians to evacuate areas that make up two-thirds of the tiny coastal territory. Most of the displaced are packed into the southern town of Rafah near the border with Egypt, where many are living in squalid tent camps and overflowing UN-run shelters.

Shurafa reported from Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, and Lee from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Samy Magdy in Cairo, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed to this report.

Source: Associated Press