WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to Israel on Wednesday (Oct 11) on a Middle East mission to prevent a wider war from erupting after an attack and hostage-taking by Palestinian Hamas militants and an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
In a show of solidarity with Washington’s closest Middle East ally, Blinken was due to meet senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to discuss further boosting military support.
“I’m going with a very simple and clear message … that the United States has Israel’s back,” Blinken told reporters before boarding a plane bound for Israel.
He will work with regional US allies to try to secure the release of more than 100 people that Israel says Hamas holds captive, some of whom may be American citizens. A senior State Department official said Blinken will visit other countries in the region after making stops in Israel and Jordan.
The top US diplomat, Blinken flew out as Israel was forming an emergency unity government. The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hamas gunmen rampaged through Israeli towns over the weekend, killing 1,200 people and taking scores of hostages to Gaza.
At least 22 Americans were killed during the attack, Blinken said.
“That number could still go up, and it probably will,” Blinken said, adding that US officials were working with Israeli counterparts to determine the fates of other US citizens who remained unaccounted for.
Israel has retaliated with air strikes that have killed more than 1,100 people, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. The Israeli military said its troops had killed at least 1,000 Palestinian gunmen who infiltrated from Gaza.
Asked if Washington had advocated for Israel to exercise restraint in its response, with a ground operation in Gaza expected, Blinken said that Israel respects international law and makes efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
“We know that Israel will take all of the precautions that it can, just as we would, and again that’s what separates us from Hamas and terrorist groups that engage in the most heinous kind of activities,” Blinken said.
A top priority for Blinken will be to convey a message of deterrence, largely aimed at Iran and Iran-backed groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to stop a wider war from erupting.
Hezbollah has moved carefully since Hamas and Israel went to war, keeping Israeli troops busy with attacks at the Lebanese border but not opening a big front, sources familiar with its thinking say.
Violence on the border between Israel and Lebanon flared up for a fourth day on Wednesday with Israeli shelling hitting southern Lebanese towns in response to a fresh rocket attack by Iran-backed Hezbollah.