US top diplomat holds talks in Israel as Netanyahu vows Rafah invasion

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the Israeli leader that a Rafah ground assault risks ‘further isolating’ Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on a regional trip to support indirect truce talks between Israel and Hamas [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]Published On 22 Mar 202422 Mar 2024

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told the United States’s top diplomat that Israel is determined to send troops into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering, and will do so without US backing if necessary.

Following a meeting with visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, Netanyahu said he told the US official there was no other way to defeat Hamas.

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“I told him that I hope we will do it with the support of the US, but if we have to – we will do it alone,” he said in a statement.

However, Blinken said a major military ground operation into Rafah “is not the way” to defeat Hamas and would risk “further isolating” Israel.

Speaking as he departed Israel, Blinken told reporters he had “candid conversations”, referring to meetings with Netanyahu and the war cabinet.

A ground operation in Rafah “risks killing more civilians. It risks wreaking greater havoc with the humanitarian assistance. It risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardising its long-term security and standing,” he said.

He also emphasised to Netanyahu the need to protect civilians in Gaza, the US Department of State said.

‘Criminal’

Blinken has been on a whistlestop tour of the region to support truce talks in Qatar that involve indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas officials.

However, on the ground, Israel continues to pound Rafah and its surroundings in the south.

Elsewhere in the strip on Friday, Israeli forces continued to raid al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical complex, for a fifth day, bombing several buildings and burning down its vascular department, Gaza’s Health Ministry said.

Israeli forces also detained about 240 patients and 10 health personnel at the Prince Nayef Center, the hospital’s radiology unit, the ministry added.

Israel claimed to have killed more than 150 “terrorists” at the facility in its ongoing operation, which Hamas has called “criminal”.

Tensions between the Biden administration and Netanyahu have spiked in recent weeks. Washington has implored Israel to do more to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, where aid agencies say much of the population is on the verge of famine.

Blinken said that during talks with Israeli officials, they discussed “surging and sustaining the amount of humanitarian assistance for the people in Gaza”.

While there have been “positive” steps taken over the last few days regarding the entry of aid, “it’s not enough”, Blinken said.

Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, said there has been a growing sense that Israel is becoming more “isolated”, especially in the West.

“I think the United States can use that against Israel because basically, Israel today has only one friend … and that’s the United States,” he said.

‘Urgency’ about ceasefire

During Blinken’s visit to Tel Aviv, several dozen people, including family members of captives being held in Gaza, gathered outside a hotel where the US delegation was based, holding banners calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Inside the hotel, Blinken met the families of American Israeli captives, a US official said.

On October 7 and in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks, the group took about 250 captives. Some captives were released in an earlier pause in fighting, but more than 100 are believed to remain, although some have been reported killed by Israeli air raids.

Blinken shakes hands with a man, as he meets demonstrators calling for the release of hostages taken on October 7 by Hamas [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Blinken’s visit came as the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a draft US resolution that called for, but did not demand, a ceasefire in Israel’s war that has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

Washington has repeatedly blocked ceasefire resolutions at the UN. On Friday, a majority backed the renewed diplomatic push, but China and Russia vetoed the US text, saying it put no pressure on Israel.

“On the resolution, which got very strong support, but then was cynically vetoed by Russia and China, I think we were trying to show the international community a sense of urgency about getting a ceasefire,” Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, Israel’s spy chief David Barnea headed to Qatar for truce and captive release negotiations along with CIA chief William Burns and Qatari and Egyptian officials.

“We made progress in the last couple of weeks on the hostage negotiations, closing gaps, but almost by definition, when you get down to the last items, they tend to be the hardest,” Blinken said about the talks. “So there is still a lot of … hard work to be done.”

A Hamas official said earlier in the week that Israel’s response to the group’s latest proposal for an initial six-week truce had been “largely negative”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies