Gaza must not be reoccupied, should be run by Palestinians, Blinken says
The Washington Post November 8, 2023
TOKYO — Israel and its allies need to start “setting the conditions for durable peace” in Gaza now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, offering the fullest vision to date from the Biden administration about how to ensure the stability and safety of the territory after the current bloody conflict.
With Israeli troops pressing their offensive on Gaza City, Blinken said that diplomatic efforts need to begin immediately to set the stage for a stable peace afterward. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under criticism for not offering a clear plan for what happens in Gaza if Israel succeeds in its goal of deposing Hamas, which has run the territory since 2007.
Netanyahu’s declaration earlier this week that Israel could assume responsibility for Gaza’s security “for an indefinite period” set off red flags for the Biden administration, whose stance is that Israel needs to avoid any suggestion of an open-ended occupation of Gaza, U.S. officials said on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
“We’ve seen what happens when we don’t have” security responsibility for Gaza, Netanyahu said in an interview with ABC News.
U.S. officials appear increasingly nervous about Israel’s plans for a post-conflict Gaza, with Blinken saying that the administration also wants to ensure other forms of protection for Gazans.
“The only way to ensure that this crisis never happens again is to begin setting the conditions for durable peace and security and to frame our diplomatic efforts now with that in mind,” Blinken told reporters in Tokyo, after meeting with European, Canadian and Japanese foreign ministers and broadening a call for “humanitarian pauses” in the Israeli assault on Gaza.
“The United States believes key elements should include no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. Not now, not after the war,” Blinken added. “No use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism or other violent attacks. No reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict ends. No attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza. No reduction in the territory of Gaza.”
The outline of a post-conflict vision by the top U.S. diplomat came amid increasing concerns about Netanyahu’s handling of the situation, with U.S. officials worrying that the Israeli leader is sending mixed signals about his commitment to a reconstructed Gaza administered by Palestinians.
Some of Blinken’s warnings were also a public pushback against private ideas raised by Israelis, U.S. officials said, including that Israeli security could be ensured by a “buffer zone” between Gaza and Israel, potentially sliced out of Gaza’s territory.
In the early days of the conflict, Israel also raised the idea that Gaza residents should leave the territory en masse and go to Egypt for the duration of the conflict against Hamas, officials said. That idea was rejected by Arab states and the Biden administration because of sensitivities that Israel might not allow the displaced residents to return, the officials said, adding that it was no longer a topic of discussion by the Israelis.
It is just the latest tension between the Israeli government and its biggest military backer, Washington, during the monthlong assault on Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
“Gaza cannot continue to be run by Hamas,” Blinken said. “It’s also clear that Israel cannot occupy Gaza. Now the reality is that there may be a need for some transition period at the end of the conflict, but it is imperative that the Palestinian people be central to the governance of Gaza and the West Bank.” He added that Israeli leaders have told him “that they have no intent to reoccupy Gaza.”
Blinken said that work for peace needs to begin now.
“We must also work on the affirmative elements to get to a sustained peace. This must include the Palestinian people’s voices and aspirations at the center of post-crisis governance in Gaza. It must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “And it must include a sustained mechanism for reconstruction in Gaza, and a pathway to Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side in space of their own with equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity.”
Israeli officials appear to have backed off Netanyahu’s “indefinite” comments slightly, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant saying that “it won’t be Hamas, and it won’t be Israel,” when asked who would ultimately control Gaza after the war. “Everything else is possible,” he added.
At the meeting in Tokyo, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven major world economies signed on to the U.S. call for “humanitarian pauses,” as international concern grows about the plight of civilians in Gaza as Israel’s ground offensive gains momentum.
“We support humanitarian pauses and corridors to facilitate urgently needed assistance, civilian movement, and the release of hostages,” foreign ministers in the group said in a joint statement agreed upon Wednesday. The G-7 includes the United States, Germany, Britain, Japan, France, Canada and Italy.
“We underscore the importance of protecting civilians and compliance with international law, in particular international humanitarian law,” the statement said, while also expressing understanding for Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
Netanyahu has resisted pressure to take a break from his country’s effort to hit Hamas, though he has signaled increasing openness to “tactical” pauses, which U.S. officials view as positive movement.
Some European countries have echoed Arab leaders’ calls for a cease-fire, meaning a more permanent halt to the fighting than a “pause,” although the Europeans have been split because some leaders there share President Biden’s view that Israel needs to dismantle Hamas as a security threat and keep pushing its offensive.
Those splits were on display inside the meeting of foreign ministers, where the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, sparred with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who has defended Israel’s goal to crush Hamas, according to officials familiar with the talks.
Blinken traveled to Japan after touring the Middle East and speaking to regional leaders about the conflict. It was a visit without immediate wins, as he faced an Israeli refusal to pause their fight and anger from Arab countries that the Biden administration continued to back Israel despite the mounting civilian death toll, which this week surpassed 10,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Taking aim at Arab leaders and other advocates of an immediate and full halt to hostilities, Blinken said after the meeting that those calling for a cease-fire now “have an obligation to explain how to address the unacceptable result that would likely bring about Hamas left in place, with more than 200 hostages, with the capacity and stated intent to repeat October 7, again and again and again.”