TEL AVIV: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday sought to advance a deal to secure the release of Israeli prisoners in Gaza in talks with Israeli moderates as he closed a Middle East tour without securing a pause in fighting.
US officials had tempered expectations that Blinken would achieve a breakthrough during his fifth visit to the region since the Oct 7 raids, and few expected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree immediately to a Qatari-mediated offer.
Blinken remained upbeat despite Netanyahu’s vocal rejection on Wednesday of Hamas’s demands and his vows to expand the four-month offensive in Gaza, hours after they met.
The top US diplomat held talks in Tel Aviv with Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, two former military chiefs who joined a unity cabinet after Oct 7.
Blinken said he spoke to them about “the hostages and the strong desire that we both have to see them returned to their families, the work that’s being done to that end”.
“The most urgent issue is of course to find ways to bring back the hostages,” Gantz told the the secretary of state.
“That being done, many things can be achieved,” Gantz said.
Hopes for progress
Blinken has shuttled around the Middle East on his fifth tour since October, and brought to Israel a response via Qatar from Hamas to a deal for the release of prisoners.
The US secretary of state said he still saw space for negotiations to improve on the deal and secure the prisoners’ release, as Egypt and Qatar held a fresh round of talks with Hamas in Cairo on Thursday.
Blinken also met Israel’s main opposition leader, Yair Lapid, on Thursday.
“It’s good to see how committed this group is to the hostages, to solving the situation, to figure out ways to promote peace,” the centrist former prime minister said, referring to efforts by Blinken and US officials.
Lapid drew an implicit contrast with Netanyahu who has resisted pressure from prisoners’ families to prioritise their release and instead vowed a relentless military campaign.
Gantz, in an X post, said he spoke to Blinken about bringing in an “international actor” that can deliver aid into Gaza away without diversion to Hamas.
“The continued delivery of humanitarian aid cynically intercepted by Hamas enables them to continue governing, harms the civilians of Gaza and only prolongs the suffering and fighting,” Gantz wrote.
Blinken has pressed Israel to let more assistance to Gaza, where the United Nations has voiced fears of famine and most buildings lie in rubble, but Israel has cited security concerns for strict limits on entry into the blockaded territory.
In a plea at a news conference on Wednesday, Blinken said Israel should not “dehumanise” Palestinians for the Hamas raids.
“The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of Oct 7, and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families,” Blinken said.
300,000 face starvation
Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives are at risk in northern and central Gaza because of a lack of food, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned on Thursday.
Philippe Lazzarini, the UNRWA commissioner-general, said the last time the agency was allowed to deliver supplies to the area was on Jan 23.
Other agencies providing humanitarian aid also reported blocks on getting relief into the Palestinian territory.
“Since the beginning of the year, half of our aid missions’ requests to the north were denied,” Lazzarini wrote on X.
“The UN has identified deep pockets of starvation and hunger in northern Gaza where people are believed to be on the verge of famine.
“At least 300,000 people living in the area depend on our assistance for their survival.”
Israel, which has blockaded the coastal territory, ordered people living in northern and central Gaza to move south as it goes after those responsible for the Oct 7 raids.
More than half of Gaza’s estimated 2.4 million people are now crowded in the city of Rafah, in the south.
But many remain in Wadi Gaza, in the centre, and the north.
Georgios Petropoulos, head of the UN humanitarian agency OCHA in Gaza, said the territory was being turned “into a wasteland of hunger and despair”.
Aid agencies were being blocked, while the few trucks that make it through are mobbed by locals, who in the north were “on the edge of starvation”, he said on Wednesday.
“They congregate by trucks and other vehicles carrying goods sometimes in their thousands, and unload them in minutes,” he added.
World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organisation providing food aid, also reported only being able to get to northern Gaza “a limited number of times each week”.
They now take two trucks – one transporting meals for hospitals, and the other to deliver food to crowds on the route, it said in a statement.
“Preventing access prevents life-saving humanitarian aid,” wrote Lazzarini.
“With the necessary political will, this can be easily reversed.”
Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2024