At Gaza border, Blinken sees hope on aid but seeks more

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with families of hostages taken by Palestinian militants during the October 7 attacks, as they gather outside a hotel in Tel Aviv on May 1, 2024 (Evelyn Hockstein)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with families of hostages taken by Palestinian militants during the October 7 attacks, as they gather outside a hotel in Tel Aviv on May 1, 2024 (Evelyn Hockstein)

After applying months of pressure on Israel to do more on aid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a first-hand look Wednesday at trucks on the Gaza border.

Under tight security including armoured cars, Blinken made his first stop to near areas targeted in Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel.

Blinken, both in Israel and on earlier stops in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, highlighted progress on delivering aid to Gaza -- a bright point in his diplomacy as negotiations drag on a ceasefire and after he directly clashes with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli plans to assault the crowded Gaza city of Rafah.

Blinken travelled to Kerem Shalom, just a few kilometres (miles) from Rafah, where he saw dozens of trucks waiting to enter -- as well as several Israeli military tanks parked nearby.

"The progress is real, but given the immense need in Gaza, it needs to be accelerated. It needs to be sustained," Blinken told reporters afterwards as he visited the port of Ashdod, also reopened to aid after US appeals.

Blinken was escorted past trucks loaded with onions and 50-kilogramme sacks of rice by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and offered an upbeat assessment of Israel's efforts.

Gallant in a statement said he discussed "how to expand humanitarian assistance to Gaza".

Shimon Freedman, a spokesman for COGAT which coordinates Israeli policy in the occupied territories, insisted on Israel's goodwill and said that 98.5 percent of shipments were getting through without Israeli objections.

But the United Nations has warned of famine in the Gaza Strip and US officials say they have heard of deaths from malnutrition in the territory, where nearly the entire population has been displaced.

Blinken has called on Israel to draw up a list of goods that would not be subject to arbitrary denial and clearing more drivers to enter the Gaza Strip.

- Jordanian aid -

Before the visit to Kerem Shalom, Blinken travelled to Nir Oz kibbutz, destroyed by Hamas on October 7, and saw the home of the Kedem Siman Tov family of five US citizens who were killed that day.

Doors remained blackened by fire and debris from chairs was littered in the garden, where a peacock unexpectedly came out to stroll.

The unprecedented attack by Hamas on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of around 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel's retaliatory bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza, aimed at destroying Hamas, has killed at least 34,568 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Kerem Shalom has become a symbol of US efforts to press Israel into allowing more humanitarian assistance into Gaza after the October 7 attacks.

After initially blocking all deliveries into Gaza, Israel reopened the crossing in December under US pressure.

Near Amman on Tuesday, Blinken saw off the first truck convoy of aid supplies from Jordan to go through Erez.

Israel in April also agreed to reopen to aid the Ashdod port near Gaza, which Blinken also visited on Wednesday, as well as a second crossing from Israel to northern Gaza at Erez.

The Israeli moves came after President Joe Biden warned that his support was on the line after an Israeli strike killed seven aid workers from the US-based charity World Central Kitchen.

The Israeli government has repeatedly blamed aid groups and the United Nations for not distributing aid more quickly, but they have accused Israel of holding up deliveries with onerous restrictions and inspections.

- Well-wishing protesters -

The humanitarian situation has brought outrage across the world and fuelled major demonstrations at US universities, a cause of concern for Biden in an election year.

In a rare scene, Blinken was greeted by well-wishing crowds outside his hotel in Tel Aviv who called on him to press Netanyahu to agree to a truce and a deal to free hostages.

"Thank you, Biden! Thank you, Blinken!" they chanted, waving both US and Israeli flags.

Blinken, who also met privately with hostage families, told them that freeing the hostages seized by militants on October 7 was "at the heart of everything we're trying to do".

"We will not rest until everyone -- men, women, soldier, civilian, young, old -- is back home," he said.

But Blinken says the onus is on Hamas which had yet to accept the latest proposal in the truce negotiations.