Blinken calls for protection of civilians as Israel prepares for expected assault on Gaza

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Saturday for protecting civilians in the Gaza Strip and Israel as he intensified his diplomatic outreach across the Middle East and beyond for an international response to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from expanding.

Blinken met with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh before stopping in the United Arab Emirates as he sought ways to help civilians trapped in between the fighting and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. Israel’s military has ordered half of the Palestinian territory’s population to evacuate in advance of an expected ground assault, but there are were few good options for those fleeing as border crossings remained closed.

Blinken also called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to seek his country’s help in preventing the war from spreading, asking Beijing to use whatever influence it has in the Mideast. Blinken’s spokesman declined to characterize Wang’s response but said the U.S. believes it and China have a shared interest in the region’s stability.

In Riyadh, Blinken and Faisal 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.

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“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.

“None of us want to see suffering by civilians on any side, whether it’s in Israel, whether it’s in Gaza, whether it’s anywhere else,” Blinken said.

The Saudi minister said the kingdom was committed to the protection of civilians.

“It’s a disturbing situation,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation. And, as you know, the primary sufferer of this situation are civilians, and civilian populations on both sides are being affected and it’s important, I think, that we all condemn the targeting of civilians in any form at any time by anyone.”

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.

The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israeli leaders acknowledged the guidance and took it under advisement.

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.

Faisal said it was imperative for the violence between Israel and Hamas to end.

“We need to work together to find a way out of this cycle of violence,” he said. “Without a concerted effort to end this constant return to violence, it will always be the civilians that suffer first, it will always be civilians on both sides that end up paying the price.”

Saudi Arabia called an urgent meeting of foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a 57-member bloc of Muslim countries. The group said in a statement that the session, set for Wednesday in Jeddah, will “address the escalating military situation in Gaza and its environs as well as the deteriorating conditions that endanger the lives of civilians and the overall security and stability of the region.”

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.


Baldor reported from aboard a U.S. military aircraft.