Blinken sends envoy to Mideast, urges Israel to spare civilians

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken 'reiterated his call on all parties to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence,' said a State Department statement.

Smoke billows from Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, on 11 May 2021. Israel and Hamas exchanged heavy fire, in a dramatic escalation between the bitter foes sparked by unrest at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Picture: Mahmud Hams/AFP

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that a US envoy would travel to the Middle East to seek to calm tensions as he implored Israel to avoid civilian deaths.

Hady Amr, the deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of Israeli and Palestinian affairs, was leaving Wednesday and will meet both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, US officials said.

"He will urge on my behalf and on behalf of President Biden a de-escalation of violence," Blinken told reporters.

The top diplomat, in a call with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, again pushed for both sides to step back from the fighting.

Blinken "reiterated his call on all parties to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence," said a State Department statement.

News of that conversation emerged shortly after the Pentagon said Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had called his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, and backed Israel's "legitimate right to defend itself and its people" while also urging steps to restore calm."

A senior US official separately said to expect further high-level contacts, including with Jordan and Egypt, although Washington does not speak to Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.

Blinken described scenes of dead Palestinian civilians, including children, as "harrowing" but defended Israel's assault on Gaza in response to rocket fire by Hamas militants.

"I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything they possibly can to avoid civilian casualties, even as it is rightfully responding in defense of its people," Blinken said.

But the diplomat said there was a "very clear and absolute distinction between a terrorist organisation, Hamas, that is indiscriminately raining down rockets - in fact, targeting civilians - and Israel's response defending itself."

President Joe Biden's administration earlier appealed to ally Israel to reroute a flashpoint parade in Jerusalem and prevent evictions of Palestinians in the holy city, the immediate trigger for the new round of violence.

Taking more nuance after the militantly pro-Israel administration of Donald Trump, Blinken renewed US support for the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"This violence takes us further away from that goal," Blinken said.

"We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security and will continue to engage with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to urge de-escalation and to bring calm."

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