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 to rally 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 growing humanitarian crisis. He also called his Chinese counterpart as Palestinians struggled to flee from areas of Gaza targeted by the Israeli military before an expected land offensive.
His efforts reflect the international concern about the number of civilians at risk and the potential ramifications of a prolonged war as Israel told Gaza residents to move south and Hamas urged people to remain in their homes. The Biden administration — from President Joe Biden to his Pentagon chief and top diplomat during their recent Mideast stops — has not publicly urged Israel to restrain its response after the Hamas attack a week ago, but has emphasized the country’s commitment to following the rules of war.
In visits with Saudi and UAE leaders, Blinken cited the need for humanitarian assistance and safe passage from those who wish to leave Gaza as he spoke to Arab audiences from their home turf, where his hosts put that issue at the top of their concerns.
An Israeli ground assault would worsen the plight of civilians in Gaza who are without power, fresh water or access to aid. Egyptian officials said the southern Rafah crossing would open later Saturday for the first time in days to allow foreigners out. Israel has advised all Palestinian civilians to flee south to avoid Israel’s continued offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza City.
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 Prince 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.
“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.
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 Rafah border into Egypt at some point Saturday. But by sunset, there was no sign that the crowds of foreigners and others gathered there would be allowed through. There are an estimated 500 Americans living in Gaza, but that number is imprecise, officials have said.
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.
Prince 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.”
While in Abu Dhabi, Blinken visited the Abrahamic Family House, a complex consisting of a church, a mosque and a synagogue representing the three Abrahamic faiths. He signed a tile with the words “Light in the Darkness.”
Blinken planned to return to Saudi Arabia and then stop in Egypt on Sunday. He has already visited Israel, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain.