U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Saturday for protecting civilians in the Gaza Strip and Israel as the Israeli military ordered half of the Palestinian territory’s population to evacuate in advance of an expected ground assault.
Blinken met with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan as America’s top diplomat held a third day of talks across the Mideast aimed at preventing the Israel-Hamas war from expanding into a regional conflict and worsening the humanitarian crisis.
Both officials stressed the importance of minimizing the harm to civilians as Israel prepared for an anticipated incursion against Hamas a week after the militant group’s unprecedented attack against Israel.
“As Israel pursues its legitimate right, to defending its people and to trying to ensure that this never happens again, it is vitally important that all of us look out for civilians, and we’re working together to do exactly that,” Blinken said before heading to the United Arab Emirates for further discussions.
A U.S official said Saturday that Washington did not ask Israel to slow or hold off on the evacuation plan. The official said the discussions with Israeli leaders did stress the importance of taking into account the safety of civilians as Israel’s military moved to enforce the evacuation demand.
In a sign of some small potential progress, a senior U.S. official traveling with Blinken said an agreement in principle had been worked out between Egypt, Israel and Qatar to allow Palestinian Americans and other dual citizens in Gaza to cross the border into Egypt during a five-hour window on Saturday. There are an estimated 500 Americans living in Gaza, but that number is imprecise, officials have said.
But Egyptian officials said the Rafah crossing remained closed due to a dispute over aid for Gaza and that U.S. citizens in the territory were not yet permitted to leave. The state-owned Al-Qahera TV station, which has close ties with Egyptian security agencies and cited unnamed security officials, reported that authorities in Cairo have conditioned the crossing of American citizens on the delivery of aid to Gaza.
Also, it was not immediately clear whether Hamas would allow convoys of foreigners to reach the crossing unimpeded.
The U.S. State Department on Saturday authorized the departure of nonemergency U.S. government personnel and their family members from the American Embassy in Jerusalem and an office in Tel Aviv.
After his meeting in Abu Dhabi, Blinken plans to return to Saudi Arabia and then to travel on Sunday to Egypt. He has already visited Israel, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain on his mission to show U.S. support for Israel as it prepares for the expected incursion into Gaza, but has also affirmed the importance of maintaining humanitarian aid in Gaza and preventing civilian casualties, in part by creating safe zones inside Gaza.