Blinken meets Netanyahu in push for more aid deliveries as Gaza teeters on brink of famine

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disembarks from an aircraft upon his arrival in Tel Aviv from Cairo, as the push for a ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel continues on March 22, 2024 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disembarks from an aircraft upon his arrival in Tel Aviv from Cairo, as the push for a ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel continues on March 22, 2024 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

US secretary of state Antony Blinken met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on Friday amid growing tension between the two close allies over the conduct of Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Mr Blinken has spent days travelling the region in an attempt to broker a new ceasefire in Gaza, some six months into the devastating war. He met with Israelis leaders on Friday to urge them not to launch a ground attack on the city of Rafah and to do more to allow humanitarian aid to enter the territory.

The visit comes at a particularly tense period for US-Israel relations, as gaps between the two historic allies have emerged over Israel’s devastating war against Hamas.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has publicly called for Israel to rethink its plan to invade the city of Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering after being displaced from across the territory.

Mr Netanyahu has baulked at the suggestions, however, and said following his meeting with Mr Blinken that he remained committed to launching an operation in the city.

“I also said that we have no way to defeat Hamas without going into Rafah and eliminating the rest of the battalions there. And 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 video statement to reporters.

Mr Blinken said ahead of the meeting that he would urge Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into the territory after a United Nations report warned that widespread famine was “imminent” in northern Gaza, and a “major acceleration of death” would follow if an immediate ceasefire is not reached.

“A hundred percent of the population of Gaza is experiencing severe levels of acute food insecurity. We cannot, we must not allow that to continue,” Mr Blinken told a news conference late on Thursday.

The visit marks the secretary of state’s trip to the Middle East since Hamas killed some 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostage in a surprise attack on 7 October in southern Israel. Israel’s offensive in response has killed more than 31,000 people in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials, who told The Independent there have been at least 27 reported deaths due to starvation and dehydration, including 23 children.

President Joe Biden has faced increasing pressure from allies at home and abroad over the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. Partly in response to that pressure, the US tabled a United Nations Security Council resolution on Friday declaring that "an immediate and sustained ceasefire" in Gaza is "imperative" to protect civilians there.

The resolution failed to pass after permanent members Russia and China voted against it.

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky said earlier that Moscow would not support a resolution “that doesn’t call for an immediate ceasefire,” and claimed the wording of the resolution did not contain any enforcement measures.

It comes one month after the US blocked a resolution submitted by Arab states that called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza, a decision that put it at odds with most of the world, including a significant number of its allies.

The US was the only country on the 15-member council to vote against the resolution, while the United Kingdom abstained. It was the third time the US has vetoed a UN resolution aimed at bringing about a ceasefire in Gaza since the conflict began.

While the failed resolution did not come with any enforcement mechanism, it is perhaps the strongest resolution regarding Israel’s war in Gaza that the US has agreed to back.

Mr Biden last month described Israel’s conduct in the war as “over the top,” but he has not shown any willingness to leverage massive US aid to Israel to pressure its ally.

His administration has quietly approved and delivered more than 100 weapons deliveries to Israel since 7 October, the Washington Post reported — sales that were not announced publicly. The White House has also bypassed Congress twice to send hundreds of millions of dollars of tank shells and ammunition.

Six months of war has caused an acute humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, which is home to more than 2 million people. The US has been unable to persuade Israel to allow sufficient aid deliveries into Gaza on the ground to feed Gaza’s population. Those blockages led to the US launching air drops of aid into the strip, and a plan to build a port on Gaza’s coast to facilitate further aid deliveries, but aid experts said those measures would be insufficient to prevent a famine.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), whose assessments are relied on by UN agencies, said this week that nearly three-quarters of people in parts of northern Gaza were now afflicted by the most severe level of food shortage, far exceeding the 20 per cent famine threshold.

Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, called the IPC report an “appalling indictment” of conditions on the ground.

“This is an entirely man-made disaster and the report makes clear that it can be halted,” he told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York, calling on Israel to ensure access to humanitarian goods throughout Gaza.

Mr Blinken arrived in Israel after meeting with foreign ministers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan on Thursday as part of his push for a new ceasefire agreement in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.

He said in the same interview with Saudi media outlet Al Hadath that the “gaps are narrowing” between Israel and Hamas in their negotiations for a ceasefire, and that “an agreement is very much possible.”