(Bloomberg) -- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he told Israeli leaders they must not repeat the scale of destruction and displacement inflicted on the northern Gaza Strip as they prepare a military push farther south to eradicate Hamas.
“We discussed the details of Israel’s ongoing planning, and I underscored the imperative for the United States that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement on the scale that we saw in northern Gaza not be repeated in the south,” Blinken said in a briefing after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
His comments during a day of meetings reflected a shift in tone by the Biden administration toward increasingly stern messages that Israel must comply with international humanitarian law if it resumes warfare after the current cease-fire.
Blinken underscored the call for restraint in a social media posting on X, saying that in the meeting with Netanyahu “I emphasized the need for Israel to take every possible measure to avoid civilian harm.” US officials emphasized in particular the hazards to civilians after many fled to southern Gaza to escape fighting, with Israel’s encouragement.
Israel and Hamas are in a truce that’s lasted about seven days and seen the release of dozens of hostages and prisoners on both sides.
Late Thursday afternoon, two of the hostages expected to be released under Thursday’s extended cease-fire were transferred by Hamas to the Red Cross and arrived in Israel, according to the Israeli military. Late at night, the military said that the Red Cross informed it that six Israeli hostages were on their way.
Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said a total of eight Israeli citizens had been freed and that the Qatari government was pursuing talks with the goal of establishing a permanent cease-fire.
Thirty Palestinians will be released in exchange for the eight Israelis and two Russian citizens freed earlier, the ministry added.
Discussing the prospect that the cease-fire and hostage releases may be extended beyond Thursday, John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council, told reporters at the White House that “we’re working on it literally by the hour to see if we can get this seventh day turned into an eighth and ninth and tenth and beyond.”
Egypt and Qatar were continuing efforts to extend the cessation in fighting for another two days, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service Diaa Rashwan said in a statement.
Under the deal, the first halt in fighting since Oct. 7, Hamas frees hostages each day, while Israel releases jailed Palestinians in addition to letting in humanitarian aid.
Israel has indicated it’s preparing to extend its military campaign farther into Gaza’s south as it looks to eradicate Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by the US and the European Union, in the wake of the group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
Blinken said Israel had agreed to the US demand to develop a plan that “puts a premium on protecting civilians,” adding that the country’s military — which he called one of the world’s most sophisticated — must avoid damage to critical infrastructure.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, said Israel intended to make sure there were enough safe zones for civilians in southern Gaza ahead of an anticipated relaunch of its military operation. The official said Israel sees eye to eye with the US and the rest of the world that the war is with Hamas and not with civilians Israel doesn’t want to harm.
More than 15,000 people have died in Gaza since the war began, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
While the cease-fire in Gaza continued to hold, in the north “a suspicious aerial target” crossed from Lebanon into Israel and was shot down, the army said.
In Jerusalem, gunmen from the eastern, mostly-Arab part of the city killed three Israelis before being shot themselves, Israeli police said. Hamas claimed the attack. Two Americans were wounded, Blinken said.
Earlier Thursday in Ramallah, Blinken met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The top US diplomat “condemned extremist violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank” and reaffirmed the Biden administration’s advocacy for a two-state solution, according to State Department spokesman Matthew Miller. Blinken told reporters that he and Abbas also discussed “the need to reform, the need to revitalize and revamp the Palestinian Authority” including through moves to end corruption and support a free press.
--With assistance from Akayla Gardner and Jordan Fabian.
(Updates with Qatar statement, starting in seventh paragraph.)
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