Blinken lands in Israel for tense Gaza talks with Netanyahu

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Tel Aviv from Cairo, as the push for a ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel continues on March 22, 2024. Picture: Evelyn Hockstein / POOL / AFP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Tel Aviv from Cairo, as the push for a ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel continues on March 22, 2024. Picture: Evelyn Hockstein / POOL / AFP

Published Mar 22, 2024


US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken landed in Tel Aviv Friday ahead of Gaza war talks, expected to be tense, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to an AFP journalist.

Blinken arrived from Cairo for the last stop of his latst Middle East tour and is expected to speak to the Israeli government on humanitarian aid distribution in the Palestinian territory and to urge Israel not to launch a ground operation in Rafah, where around 1.5 million people are sheltering.

Israel's main backer the United States announced it would submit for a vote on Friday a draft to the Security Council on the need for an "immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal", after repeatedly using its veto power to block other similarly worded resolutions.

After talks in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Blinken flies to Israel on Friday, his sixth trip to the region since the war began with Hamas's attack on Israel on October 7.

Fighting in Gaza this week has centred around Al-Shifa hospital, the besieged territory's largest, with Israel also vowing to launch a new ground assault in overcrowded Rafah in the south.

Israel said its spy chief would also head back to Qatar on Friday for more truce talks with US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators who are trying to negotiate a six-week pause.

The talks are focused on securing a truce agreement, hinged on the release of hostages held by Hamas militants in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody and the delivery of more aid to Gaza, where famine is threatening its 2.4 million people.

Blinken told reporters in Cairo on Thursday "gaps are narrowing" and that the United States was "continuing to push for an agreement in Doha".

"It's difficult to get there, but I believe it is still possible," Blinken said.

He warned that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city where around 1.5 million people are hemmed in by the Egyptian border, would be "a mistake".

"There is no place for the civilians amassed in Rafah to get out of harm's way," Blinken said.

"There is a better way to deal with the ongoing threat posed by Hamas."

- 'Immediate, durable ceasefire' -

The United States will submit its draft resolution to the UN Security Council on Friday, a spokesman for the US representative to the world body said.

The US resolution "will unequivocally support ongoing diplomatic efforts aimed at securing an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as part of a hostage deal... we will be bringing this Resolution for a vote on Friday morning," Nate Evans, spokesman for US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said in a statement.

The United Kingdom and Australia, both allies of Israel and the United States, issued a statement after talks on Friday between their defence and foreign ministers that stressed the "urgency of an immediate cessation of fighting in Gaza to allow aid to flow and hostages to be released".

After blocking an Algerian draft resolution calling for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" in Gaza at the end of February, US officials have been negotiating an alternative text focusing on support for a six-week truce in exchange for the release of hostages.

However, Russia's Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy told reporters his country was "not satisfied with anything which doesn't call for an immediate ceasefire", raising the question of whether Security Council permanent member Moscow might veto the vote.

Israel's relentless bombardment of Gaza has continued despite renewed diplomatic efforts, with the death toll in Gaza close to 32,000, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel's military said it had killed more than 140 Hamas fighters and arrested more than 350 since the start of its operation in and around Al-Shifa hospital on Monday.

It said militants were hiding out at the vast hospital complex and civilians had not been harmed. Hamas said the attack on an area crowded with patients and people seeking refuge was a crime.

AFP images showed streams of people fleeing south from the hospital along Gaza's coast.

A 60-year-old patient who gave his name as Younis said he had been forced outside without clothes, blindfolded and interrogated before being freed.

The soldiers "beat all the young men and arrested them", he told AFP.

The Israeli military said it was working "to identify unusual cases" involving its troops.