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Blinken calls for ‘pauses’ in Gaza as Israel targets civilians

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians, bringing up the idea of “humanitarian pauses” on Friday, shortly before Israeli airstrikes targeted Gaza’s largest hospital.

After meeting Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken said he had discussed the idea of “humanitarian pauses” to secure the release of hostages and to allow aid to be distributed to Gaza’s beleaguered population.

“We believe that each of these efforts would be facilitated by humanitarian pauses, by arrangements on the ground that increase security for civilians and permit the more effective and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Blinken told journalists.

In a blunt call for Israel to pause military operations in the territory to allow for the immediate and increased delivery of assistance, Blinken said the current situation would drive Palestinians toward further radicalism and effectively end prospects for any eventual resumption of peace talks to end the conflict.

“There will be no partners for peace if they’re consumed by humanitarian catastrophe and alienated by any perceived indifference to their plight,” Blinken said.

And he reiterated Washington’s long-standing support for the eventual recognition of a Palestinian state: “Two states for two peoples. Again, that is the only way to ensure lasting security for a Jewish and democratic Israel.”

Netanyahu, however, warned that there could be no “temporary truce” in Gaza unless Hamas releases the estimated 241 Israeli and foreign hostages.

Before his departure, Blinken said he would seek to ensure that harm to Palestinian civilians is reduced, in a visible shift of tone for the United States, which has promised full support and ramped-up military aid to Israel.

But, beginning his visit with talks with President Isaac Herzog, Blinken reiterated the basis of its support, telling reporters: “Israel has not only the right but the obligation to defend itself … to make sure that this October 7 never happens again,”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had already had some “very impressive successes” with troops “more than on the outskirts of Gaza City. We are advancing,” he said late Thursday at a base near Tel Aviv.

Although many of the city’s half-a-million residents fled south following Israel’s warning to leave ahead of a ground operation, those who stayed behind have endured weeks of aerial bombardment, dwindling supplies and daily carnage.

Both Israel and the United States have previously ruled out a blanket cease-fire, which they say would allow Hamas to regroup and resupply, but U.S. President Joe Biden has backed “temporary, localized” pauses.

Israel, meanwhile, began expelling thousands of Palestinian workers back to Gaza, despite ongoing fighting and airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians in the territory.

Israeli forces have urged Gazans to head south from Gaza City toward the southern end of the territory to escape the worst of the fighting, but the Hamas-run health ministry said that 14 fleeing Palestinians, including women and children, had been killed making this journey.

Witnesses said the strike hit Gaza’s coastal road, which the Israeli military has previously told civilians to take to travel south.

In Geneva, the United Nations launched an emergency aid appeal seeking $1.2 billion to help some 2.7 million people facing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, also made a speech — in his case blaming the United States for the conflict — as he broke with weeks of silence amid concerns of a broader regional conflagration.

“America is entirely responsible for the ongoing war on Gaza and its people, and Israel is simply a tool of execution,” he said in a televised broadcast, accusing Washington of impeding “a cease-fire and the end of the aggression.”

Nasrallah warned Israel against attacking Lebanon and said the possibility of “total war is realistic.”

Ahead of Blinken’s arrival, Israel’s military said it had “completed the encirclement” of Gaza’s largest city — signaling a new phase in the nearly month-long conflict.

More than 9,227 Palestinians have died in Israeli bombardments, mostly women and children.

Workers expelled

Israel had said it would start sending the workers back to Gaza.

“Israel is severing all contact with Gaza. There will be no more Palestinian workers from Gaza,” the Israeli security cabinet said on Thursday.

The United Nations Human Rights Office said it was “deeply concerned” about the expulsions.

“They are being sent back, we don’t know exactly to where,” and whether they “even have a home to go to,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell told a news conference in Geneva.

Before the war started, some 18,500 Gazans held Israeli work permits, according to Israeli defense officials, but it was not clear how many were in the country on Oct. 7.

New Israeli strikes rocked the Gaza Strip on Friday morning, an AFP correspondent said, and the Gaza health ministry reported at least 15 deaths in Gaza City’s Zeitun neighborhood and seven in Jabalia refugee camp.

The Hamas government has said 195 people were killed in Israeli bombardments on Jabalia earlier this week, with hundreds more missing and wounded, figures AFP could not independently verify.

Israel’s allies have backed its right to self-defense, but there is growing global concern and anger at how Israel has chosen to prosecute the war, as it targets hospitals, churches, mosques, refugee camps, bakeries and more.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar expressed concern that Israel’s response had gone beyond tackling Hamas in self-defense and now “resembles something more approaching revenge.” France demanded that Israel explain why it had bombed a French institute in Gaza.

The office of the French news agency AFP in Gaza was also badly damaged after being hit by an Israeli projectile.

None of the eight employees normally stationed in Gaza were at the office at the time as they had already been evacuated to the southern Gaza Strip, AFP said.

“AFP strongly condemns the strike on its office in Gaza City,” said agency head Fabrice Fries in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

“The location of this office is known to everyone and has been pointed out several times over the past few days, precisely to prevent such an attack and to enable us to continue to provide images on the ground.”

In response to an AFP inquiry, an Israeli army spokesman said that checks showed Israel had not fired on the building where the office is located, the agency reported.

An AFP employee on site said there was considerable damage, and that the projectile seemed to have entered the top floor of the office horizontally.

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