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Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability
30 MINUTE READ
January 10, 2024

Secretary Antony J. Blinken holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 9. 2024. (Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy)

 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good evening.

This is my fourth trip to Israel since the horrific Hamas attacks of October 7th, so I’m here just over three months – 95 days – since those attacks occurred.

We know that for the people who were most affected by the attacks and the conflict that’s followed, time moves differently.

Immediately before this, I met with the families of hostages being held in Gaza and with hostages who’ve been released.  Several of those families I’ve now met multiple times.  For them, every day, every hour, every minute that they’re separated from their loved ones is an eternity.

Time feels different for families in Gaza as well, hundreds of thousands of whom are experiencing acute food insecurity.  For the mother or father trying to find something to feed a hungry child, the passage of another day without food is excruciating.

Time also feels different for Israelis and Palestinians whose innocent loved ones have been killed.  For them, time often falls into “before” and “after” – the “after” filled with a loss that most of us will never know and cannot fully imagine.

And those are just a few examples of how heavy these 95 days have felt – and continue to feel – for the people most affected by this conflict.

This immense human toll is one of the many reasons that we continue to stand with Israel in ensuring that October 7th can never happen again.

It’s also why we’re intensely focused on bringing the remaining hostages home, addressing the humanitarian crisis and strengthening protection of civilians in Gaza, and preventing the conflict from spreading.

And it’s the reason we’re working urgently to forge a path toward lasting peace and security in this region.

We believe the submission against Israel to the International Court of Justice distracts the world from all of these important efforts.  And moreover, the charge of genocide is meritless.

It’s particularly galling, given that those who are attacking Israel – Hamas, Hizballah, the Houthis, as well as their supporter, Iran – continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews.

On this trip, I came to Israel after meeting with the leaders of Türkiye, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia.

All of those leaders share our concern about the spread of the conflict.  All of them are committed to using their influence, using the ties that they have to prevent it from escalating, to deter new fronts from opening.

In addition, all expressed grave concern about the dire humanitarian situation and the number of civilians killed in Gaza.

We know that facing an enemy that embeds itself among civilians – who hides in and fires from schools, from hospitals – makes this incredibly challenging.  But the daily toll on civilians in Gaza, particularly on children, is far too high.

Important progress has been made in increasing the amount of aid getting into Gaza, including by opening Kerem Shalom.

Nonetheless, 90 percent of Gaza’s population continues to face acute food insecurity, according to the United Nations.  For children, the effects of long periods without sufficient food can have lifelong consequences.

As I underscored in our meetings today, more food, more water, more medicine, other essential goods need to get into Gaza.  And then once they’re in Gaza, they need to get more effectively to the people who need them.

And Israel needs to do everything it can to remove any obstacles from crossings to other parts of Gaza.  Improving deconfliction procedures to ensure that the aid can move safely and securely is a critical part of that.

The United Nations is playing an indispensable role in addressing the immense humanitarian needs in Gaza.  There is simply no alternative.

UN personnel and other aid workers in Gaza are demonstrating extraordinary courage by continuing to provide lifesaving services in what are extremely challenging conditions.

I spoke last night with the UN’s new Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag about all of these efforts that are underway.

Now, Sigrid Kaag is someone I worked very closely with a few years ago, when she led the UN mission that destroyed the Assad regime’s chemical weapons in Syria.  So, I can say from experience she has what it takes to get this job done.

She has America’s full support.  She must have Israel’s as well.

Today, we also discussed the phased transition of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.  We continue to offer our best advice for how Israel can achieve its essential goal of ensuring that October 7th can never be repeated.  And we believe Israel has achieved significant progress toward this fundamental objective.

As Israel’s campaign moves to a lower-intensity phase in northern Gaza, and as the IDF scales down its forces there, we agreed today on a plan for the UN to carry out an assessment mission.  It will determine what needs to be done to allow displaced Palestinians to return safely to homes in the north.

Now, this is not going to happen overnight.  There are serious security, infrastructure, and humanitarian challenges.  But the mission will start a process that evaluates these obstacles and how they can be overcome.

In today’s meetings I was also crystal clear:  Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow.  They must not be pressed to leave Gaza.  As I told the prime minister, the United States unequivocally rejects any proposals advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza, and the prime minister reaffirmed to me today that this is not the policy of Israel’s government.

We also spoke about the tensions on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Hizballah continues to launch daily rocket attacks on Israel.  As I told the war cabinet and other senior officials, the United States stands with Israel in ensuring its northern border is secure.  We’re fully committed to working with Israel to find a diplomatic solution that avoids escalation and allows families to return to their homes, to live securely in northern Israel and also in southern Lebanon.

Finally, we continue to discuss how to build a more durable peace and security for Israel within the region.  As I told the prime minister, every partner that I met on this trip said that they’re ready to support a lasting solution that ends the long-running cycle of violence and ensures Israel’s security.  But they underscored that this can only come through a regional approach that includes a pathway to a Palestinian state.

These goals are attainable, but only if they’re pursued together.  This crisis has clarified you can’t have one without the other, and you can’t achieve either goal without an integrated regional approach.

To make this possible, Israel must be a partner to Palestinian leaders who are willing to lead their people in living side by side in peace with Israel and as neighbors.  And Israel must be – must stop taking steps that undercut Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves effectively.  Extremist settler violence carried out with impunity, settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions all make it harder, not easier, for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security.

The Palestinian Authority also has a responsibility to reform itself, to improve its governance – issues I plan to raise with President Abbas, among others, when we meet tomorrow.

If Israel wants its Arab neighbors to make the tough decisions necessary to help ensure its lasting security, Israeli leaders will have to make hard decisions themselves.

When President Biden addressed the people of Israel days after the October 7th attack, he made a very simple pledge:  The United States has Israel’s back today, tomorrow, always.  The friendship between our nations is truly exceptional.  It’s our unique bond and America’s enduring commitment to the people of Israel that allows – indeed, demands – that we’re as forthright as possible in the moments when the stakes are highest, when the choices matter the most.  This is one of those moments.

Happy to take some questions.

MR MILLER:  The first question goes to Simon Lewis with Reuters.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Mr. Secretary, the future of the Gaza Strip has been a theme of your trip while you’ve been visiting regional countries.  I wonder today were you able to do any – make any progress on closing the gap between Arab leaders and Israel on specific security, reconstruction, and governance arrangements for Gaza.

And you talked before leaving Saudi Arabia yesterday about the need for a practical pathway to a Palestinian state as part of any efforts towards regional integration, and obviously that’s come up today in your meetings with the cabinet.  Has Prime Minister Netanyahu changed his mind?  Is he still opposed to the creation of a separate Palestinian state, or have you managed to convince him or get any guarantees that this is something that can happen?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So one of the things that I heard very clearly on this trip – these two questions are actually joined – is many countries in the region are really prepared to invest in a number of ways, to invest when the conflict in Gaza is over in its reconstruction, in its security, supporting Palestinians in their governance.  But it is essential to them that there also be a clear pathway to the realization of Palestinian political rights and a Palestinian state.

And I think the view that they have expressed is that critical to ending once and for all the cycle of violence that is only going to repeat itself at some point in the future is through the realization of Palestinian political rights.  That was a very clear message that I heard everywhere I went, just as I heard, again, a commitment not only to be engaged in the future of Gaza, but also to take the steps necessary, make the commitments necessary, provide the assurances necessary to give Israel confidence in its security.  And that’s something that’s new in recent years and very powerful, which is the willingness, the commitment of many neighboring countries not only to live with Israel in peace but also genuinely to have a region that’s more integrated in which everyone can feel secure, including Israel.

So there’s a – I think a – also here a potentially powerful opportunity for the future.  Now, very difficult to get there, hard to get there; hard decisions, hard choices need to be made in order to get there.  But you can see that possibility.  I’m not going to speak for the prime minister or anyone in the Israeli Government about their views.  I can just share our own, and also share a little bit of what I heard from countries in the region.

MR MILLER:  For the next question, Suleiman Maswadeh with Kan News.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for taking questions.  I’ll do it very fast.  The Israeli Government is still refusing to transfer the PA’s money, and the Minister of Finance Smotrich said yesterday there are 2 million Nazis in Gaza, and I won’t give money to Nazis, just like the U.S. won’t give money to al-Qaida.  I would like to have your comment on that.  And the second question is the cabinet said – the war cabinet said that they are not – they are refusing to let Gazans go back to north Gaza for now.  Is that something that you agreed on with your Israeli counterparts?  Thank you very much.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So first with regard to the Palestinian Authority revenues, these are their revenues.  They should have them.  They should have them in order to be able to make sure that they can pay their people who are providing essential services, including doing essential work in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority security forces who are playing a very important role in trying to keep peace, security, and stability in the West Bank – something that’s profoundly in Israel’s interest.  So we believe that those revenues should be released to them.  Again, their revenues, and being used to do something that’s important to Israel.

And when it comes to the future governance of Gaza when the conflict is over, of course people need to be paid.  They need to be able to do the work necessary to administer Gaza, to do the other things that will be critical once the conflict ends.

In terms of Palestinians and moving back north in Gaza, as I spoke to earlier, we have an agreement that the UN will now conduct an assessment to determine the conditions necessary for people to be able to move back home.  There are a lot of really challenging and important issues to deal with, including things like unexploded ordnance, booby traps, and other explosives that have been left by Hamas; infrastructure questions, proper support – all of those things are going to be evaluated by the United Nations pursuant to this agreement.  And then as soon as conditions allow, we want to see people be able to move back to their homes.  And we’ve been very clear about the necessity of doing that when conditions allow, and making sure that if people want to go back, they can go back.

MR MILLER:  Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  I just wanted to ask about – we’ve heard some voices among Israeli political leaders talking about the threat of Iran in the region, and of course its proxies, Hizballah and the Houthis, have been active in and around this conflict.  And – but you’re bringing a message to the region of de-escalation.  Was your message of de-escalation heard and agreed with when you spoke to your Israeli counterparts and political leaders today, or – we haven’t – certainly haven’t seen that in the last few days.  There have been strikes on Hizballah that would appear to be an escalation.  Do you support that, and is the U.S. and its partners – are they prepared to take a strike against the Houthis because of their continued action in and around the Red Sea?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Will.  One thing that we’ve heard clearly every place we’ve gone, including in Israel, is that escalation is in no one’s interest.  No one’s seeking it.  No one wants to see other fronts opened in this conflict.  And more than that, as I’ve already shared, we have countries around the region that are using their relationships, using their influence, to try to make sure that that doesn’t happen.  We had extensive discussions about that today, as we had on other days of this trip.  And here we focused particularly on the situation in northern Israel.  And it’s very clear to me from these conversations a few things.

First, we strongly support the proposition that Israelis need to know security so that they can return to their homes in northern Israel.  Eighty-thousand or so Israelis have been forced from their homes because of insecurity from – coming from southern Lebanon, the rocket attacks, other threats posed by Hizballah.  Equally, we believe – and the Government of Israel believes – that a diplomatic path is the best way to achieve that security, and that’s exactly what we’ll continue to pursue.  It’s what the government said today, and that’s what we’re focused on.

More broadly, we have – you’re right – a number of actions being taken by the Houthis, by other Iranian proxies in Iraq, in Syria, that threaten stability and threaten the potential for conflict.  And we’re determined, again, that we not see escalation, that we don’t have the conflict spread, and we’ve made that very clear.  But, of course, if our personnel, if our forces are threatened or attacked, we’ll take appropriate steps.  We’ll respond.  We’ll protect them.  We’ve demonstrated that in the recent past, and we will again if we have to.  We talked already about the threat that the Houthis are posing.  That’s a threat not to us – just to us or to Israel; it’s a threat to the entire international community because they’ve been attacking shipping through the Red Sea that’s vital to providing – it provides about 15 percent of global commerce every day.

These attacks have had very, very negative affects for countries around the world in terms of forcing ships to route around the Red Sea – take longer routes, more expensive, more time, insurance rates goes up; prices for food, for medicine, for energy, for whatever’s being shipped are going up.  And more broadly, it’s a threat to the principle of freedom of navigation that every country has a stake in.  That’s why more than 40 countries joined us in condemning the Houthi actions.  That’s why other countries have joined us in making clear that if this continues, there are going to be consequences.

But no one was looking to create a conflict or to escalate a conflict.  On the contrary, we’re seeking to prevent that from happening, but we also have to uphold basic principles of international law, including freedom of navigation – and we have to make sure that our own personnel when they’re under threat are being protected.

QUESTION:  You said there are going to be consequences.  Does that mean there has been a decision by the U.S. or its partners to take action?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I’m not going to speculate on what will happen in the future.  We just want to make clear that if these actions by the Houthis continues, there will be consequences.  I’m not going to say anything beyond that.

MR MILLER:  For the final question, Walid Al-Omari with Al Jazeera.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Walid Al-Omari, Al Jazeera bureau chief in Jerusalem.  First let me, Mr. Secretary Blinken, thank you for expressing your deep sadness about the tragedy of our dear colleague Al Jazeera reporter in Gaza Wael al-Dahdouh.  Wael has lost his wife and three sons and his grandchildren in an Israeli bombardment of the house where they were fled from the center of Gaza City and displaced to the southern Gaza strip in 25th of October.  Two days ago or three days ago he lost his eldest son Hamza who was a journalist in Al Jazeera media network and was killed in an Israeli airstrike that hit a civilian car in Rafah.  One-hundred-and-ten Palestinian journalists were killed so far by Israeli army in Gaza during the war.  More than 20,000 civilians were killed, and tens of thousands were injured, and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes that no longer exist.  The situation of the Israeli citizens is also difficult.  Tens of thousands were displaced from the Gaza envelope and the border line with Lebanon, and hundreds of civilians were killed in the Hamas attack on the 7th of October.  And there are many prisoners and hostages from both sides, as you know.

My question:  Why do you as a superpower and as leading force in the international community not oblige the parties and especially the Israeli Government to cease fire in Gaza and respect the United Nations resolutions and (inaudible) the peaceful solution instead of both sides continuing wash blood by more blood?

My second question is related to the matter of normalization, and is the USA really busy with the matter, and do you think, Mr. Blinken, that the option exists or is it just an attempt to escape from the solution of the Palestinian question, and tempting Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, to agree with the American position in order to change his extreme government?  And what’s about the role of the four Arab nations or countries, as you mentioned before, in Gaza?  It’s just to contribute for the reconstruction, or they have political rule there?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Okay.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Let me just say again, at the outset, the loss – losses – that your colleague suffered are unimaginable, and I have deep condolences for what he has suffered.  I, again, can’t even begin to fully imagine what he’s gone through.  And as I said again the other day, to the journalists who’ve lost their lives or have been injured in Gaza, we feel very strongly for them as well, and the essential work that they do is more vital than ever.

We want this war to end as soon as possible.  There’s been far too much loss of life, far too much suffering.  But it’s vital that Israel achieve its very legitimate objectives of ensuring that October 7th can never happen again, and we believe they’ve made considerable progress toward that goal.

At the same time, I think it’s very important to remember that everyone has choices to make, and that includes Hamas.  Hamas could have ended this on October 8th by not hiding behind civilians, by putting down its weapons, by surrendering, by releasing the hostages.  None of the suffering – none of the suffering – would have happened if Hamas hadn’t done – did what it did on October 7th and had it made different decisions thereafter.  So it’s very important to keep that in perspective, and again, this could end tomorrow if Hamas makes those decisions.

We will continue, as we’ve done, to give the Israelis our best advice about conducting this war in a manner that achieves the objective of making sure that October 7th can’t be repeated, does better by protecting civilians, and making sure that people get the assistance that they need.

With regard to normalization, there is, I think, a clear interest in pursuing that.  Integration of the region is something that virtually all of the countries that I visited on this trip want to advance, want to pursue.  Some of them have already taken vital steps to do that.  Others, I think, are interested in doing the same.  But it’s equally clear that that’s not in substitute for or at the expense of a political horizon for the Palestinians and ultimately a Palestinian state.  On the contrary, that piece has to be a part of any integration efforts, any normalization efforts.  That was also very clear in my conversations during the course of this trip, including in Saudi Arabia.

Thank you.

QUESTION:  What about the (inaudible)?  Is there any political (inaudible)?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So again, I think these things are somewhat joined.  It’s clear that, as I mentioned before, most of the countries I visited are really prepared to I think support Gaza in the future, to support all the efforts that are necessary, and to support Palestinian-led governance for Gaza.  But it’s also vitally important to them that there be a pathway forward for the Palestinians in terms of their overall political rights and a very clear political horizon.  We and they support Palestinian governance that’s joined of Gaza and the West Bank, and the pathway to a state.  That’s, again, very clear from everyone I talked to in the region.

Thank you.