Scoop: Blinken warns Israeli officials global pressure will grow longer war goes on
Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gen. Herzi Halevi told Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Thursday that the Israeli military operation in Gaza, including in the southern part of the enclave, is expected to take "more than a few additional weeks," three people with direct knowledge of the meeting said.
Driving the news: The White House is increasingly concerned an Israeli operation in the southern Gaza Strip — where 2 million Palestinians are concentrated — would lead to significantly more civilian casualties and deepen the humanitarian crisis in the enclave.
- Early in the war, Israel ordered more than 1 million Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza and move to the south before its ground invasion began.
- It has also prevented Palestinians from returning to the north during the humanitarian pause in fighting.
- President Biden warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week that the way Israel operated in northern Gaza, which included a wide assault and three armored and infantry divisions, can't be repeated in the southern part of the enclave, Axios previously reported.
Behind the scenes: Blinken met on Thursday in Jerusalem with Netanyahu and the members of his war cabinet.
- The possibility of an Israeli operation in southern Gaza was a major topic of the discussion, according to two sources with direct knowledge.
- One source called the discussion "a frank exchange of views" — hinting at growing disagreements between the parties on the way forward when it comes to the IDF operation in Gaza.
- Two of the sources said Blinken was the one who initiated the conversation when he asked to be briefed on the Israeli military's plans for southern Gaza and asked how long Israel thinks the military operation will continue in its current scope.
- The State Department declined to comment. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office and IDF did not respond to requests for comment.
Blinken didn't ask Israel to stop the operation but expressed concern and said the longer the high-intensity military campaign goes on, the more international pressure will build on both the U.S. and Israel to stop it, one source said.
- Blinken, in speaking to the war cabinet, asked that Israel take additional steps to make sure that a military operation in southern Gaza doesn't lead to an even higher amount of civilian casualties, according to the three sources.
- Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Halevi told Blinken that a ground operation in southern Gaza would cause fewer civilian casualties than air strikes, the three sources said.
Between the lines: It's unclear if the Israeli officials were implying Israel wouldn't conduct air strikes in addition to a ground operation at the same level it did in the north.
- More than 14,800 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza.
What they're saying: At a press conference after his meetings, Blinken said he made clear to Netanyahu and the war cabinet that ahead of any military operation in southern Gaza, Israel has to prepare a plan to protect Palestinian civilians either by designating certain areas as safe or allowing people from northern Gaza who were displaced to go back to their homes.
- "I made clear that the amount of civilian casualties we had in the north can't repeat itself in the south. Intent matters but results are also important," Blinken said.
- Blinken added that Netanyahu and the members of the Israeli war cabinet agreed with that approach. He added that there are specific steps he heard about from the Israeli government that are meant to minimize civilian casualties. He said, however, that he did not want to elaborate.
What they're saying: Netanyahu said in a statement after the meeting with Blinken that Israel will continue the war until it achieves three goals: freeing all of our hostages, completely eliminating Hamas and ensuring that no threat like this will ever come from Gaza again.
- "I told Blinken - We have sworn to eliminate Hamas. Nothing will stop us," Netanyahu said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with Blinken's comments at Thursday's press conference.