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Blinken tells Netanyahu in Israel: US will 'always be there'


Blinken tells Netanyahu in Israel: US will 'always be there'

TEL AVIV, Israel - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a robust message of solidarity to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday as he embarked on a Middle East tour aimed at stopping spillover from the war between Israel and Hamas.

The top U.S. diplomat also plans to visit key American allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates - some of which have influence on Hamas, the Palestinian militants who attacked Israel on Saturday. It will be Blinken's most extensive Middle East visit since taking office in January 2021.

Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas in retaliation for the deadliest attack against Jews since the Holocaust and massed tanks on the border with the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Gaza Strip on Thursday ahead of an anticipated ground invasion. The escalation is the most serious in the region in years.

"You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself. But as long as America exists, you will never ever have to. We will always be there by your side," Blinken told Netanyahu.

He urged restraint by Israel as it hits back against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Blinken said taking steps to avoid civilian deaths sets democratic governments apart from groups like Hamas, who target civilians in "most inhumane ways."

"It's so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians," Blinken said while standing beside Netanyahu after their meeting.

Blinken also toured a donation center. Among the volunteers was a young Israeli-American woman, Lior Gelbaum, who - along with her Israeli boyfriend - survived the Hamas attack on a rave party in southern Israel.

"We went through horror really," said Gelbaum, struggling to hold back tears as she described losing friends in the attack. "Thank you for being here; it's really important."

Safe passage

Washington says at least 25 Americans were killed in the Hamas attacks and more are believed to be among the scores of hostages taken to Gaza. U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Steve Gillen traveled with Blinken to Israel and will stay to support efforts to free them, Blinken said.

Blinken was headed to Jordan on Thursday evening to meet King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United States is offering charter flights to Europe from Friday to help Americans leave Israel if they want.

During his visit to Tel Aviv, Blinken recounted how his grandfather fled pogroms in Russia and his stepfather survived Nazi concentration camps.

"I understand on a personal level the harrowing echoes that Hamas' massacres carry for Israeli Jews, indeed, for Jews everywhere," he said after meeting Netanyahu.

Blinken said that Israel is obliged to defend itself in a way to ensure the cross-border attack can never happen again, and that he spoke with Netanyahu about how it will do so.

Blinken also said as Israel's defense needs evolve, Washington would work with Congress to ensure they are met. The Biden administration plans to next week release its request for more money from Congress.

Gaza moved closer to a humanitarian catastrophe on Thursday as the death toll rose and vital supplies ran low after Israel imposed a siege on the enclave. Israel said there would be no humanitarian break until all hostages were freed.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Washington was working to advance talks on providing a safe passage to civilians, including around 500 to 600 Palestinian Americans resident in Gaza.

Containing the conflict is a top U.S. priority and Blinken has been speaking with regional allies, who speak to Iran and Iran-backed groups, to ask them to advise Tehran to keep out.

In the biggest sign yet of the conflict potentially spilling across borders, Syria said Israeli air strikes had hit the airports in Damascus and Aleppo, putting both out of service, while Israel and the powerful armed group Hezbollah have exchanged fire across the Lebanese border.

"We're very intent on demonstrating ... that we're committed to keeping other parties out of this conflict," the official said. — Reuters

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