Biden announces Israel solidarity visit amid efforts to ease Gaza humanitarian crisis

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday stated that US President Joe Biden will visit Tel Aviv on Wednesday to show solidarity with the people of Israel amid efforts to ease a spiralling humanitarian disaster in Gaza intensify.

Blinken also highlighted the progress made in convincing the US ally to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza Strip. The top US diplomat met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pledged to destroy Hamas, for over nine hours at the defence ministry.

The conflict intruded firsthand on the talks as air sirens went off. Blinken, Netanyahu and aides took shelter in a bunker for five minutes, with waiting journalists ushered down a stairwell, before the US-backed Iron Dome system destroyed the incoming rocket, AFP reported.

Speaking at 3:00am Tuesday (0000 GMT), Blinken announced that Biden, who has spoken in emotional terms of support for Israel, would visit on Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on October 17, 2023, after an overnight meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. — AFP
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on October 17, 2023, after an overnight meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. — AFP

“The president will reaffirm United States solidarity with Israel and our ironclad commitment to its security,” Blinken said. “Israel has the right and indeed the duty to defend its people from Hamas and other terrorists and to prevent future attacks,” Blinken said.

Biden will hear a first-hand account of Israel’s military needs and work with Congress to fulfil them, Blinken said.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in Washington that Biden would travel onward to Jordan to see King Abdullah II, a key US partner, as well as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Blinken met all three leaders on a six-nation swing through the Arab world in the three days between two visits to Israel.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday thanked the United States for its support, which has also included a visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the deployment of two US aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean.

“Let me tell you, Mr Secretary, this will be a long war, the price will be high, but we are going to win — for Israel, for the Jewish people and for the values that both countries believe in,” Gallant told Blinken.

Developing aid plan for Gaza civilians

Israel declared war on Hamas after its fighters broke through the heavily fortified border and killed more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.

Israel has responded with relentless bombing, leaving more than 2,700 Palestinians martyred, the majority being civilians and children, in the impoverished Gaza Strip which it has long blockaded.

Blinken, like Biden, has vowed unwavering support for Israel and steered clear of pressing for a ceasefire. However, Blinken’s aides acknowledged that he also heard wide concern in the Arab world over the people of impoverished Gaza, which is run by Hamas.

Blinken said that Israel promised to work with the United States on letting in foreign assistance.

He said the two sides agreed to “develop a plan” on foreign assistance. Officials did not set a timeline but expected David Satterfield, a veteran former US ambassador who started a new job Monday coordinating humanitarian aid, to work out details.

Biden hopes to “hear from Israel how it will conduct its operations in a way that minimises civilian casualties and enables humanitarian assistance to flow to civilians in Gaza in a way that does not benefit Hamas,” Blinken said.

He said the two sides were discussing the “possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians out of harm’s way.”

The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been closed despite US efforts, with drivers fearful that Israel will strike them for suspicions they are helping Hamas, which receives weapons smuggled from Iran’s clerical state.

Blinken said the US shared Israel’s concerns about Hamas and would take action if it stops or diverts aid.

The Biden administration earlier persuaded Israel to restore water partially after earlier vows by Israeli leaders to cut off all water, food and energy following the attacks.

Millions of Israelis displaced

Around 500,000 Israelis have been evacuated and displaced in the 10 days since Hamas unleashed the bloodiest attack in the country’s history, the Israeli military said Tuesday.

“There are about half a million internally displaced Israelis at the time,” Jonathan Conricus, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), said in an online briefing.

He pointed out that all communities around the Gaza Strip had been evacuated, as had more than 20 communities along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, AFP reported.

The evacuations follow the brutal surprise attack by Hamas fighters, who broke through the heavily fortified border on October 7 and killed more than 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians.

It was the worst attack in the country’s 75-year history. Israel’s relentless series of retaliatory air strikes in the Gaza Strip have flattened neighbourhoods, martyring over 2,700, most of them Palestinian civilians including a large number of children.

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on October 8, 2023. — AFP
Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on October 8, 2023. — AFP

More than one million people have been displaced inside the densely populated Palestinian territory, as Israel prepares for a full-blown ground offensive against Hamas.

Israel’s army has also been evacuating residents living along its northern border with Lebanon, amid rising tensions with Hezbollah.

An Israeli civilian and an army officer were killed Sunday in missile attacks from Lebanon, and the army carried out retaliatory strikes and attacked the group’s infrastructure.

The move affects thousands of people living in 28 communities.

Many had already left the area after repeated cross-border fire in recent days has claimed lives on both sides of the UN-patrolled border between Lebanon and Israel which remain technically at war.

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