New Delhi/Seoul —
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “some progress” has been made toward protecting Palestinian civilians, but that “much more needs to be done” to minimize casualties and deliver humanitarian assistance to war-stricken Gaza.
“We have seen progress, we just need to see more of it,” Blinken told reporters in New Delhi at the end of a nine-day, eight-country tour that focused in large part on the worsening Middle East conflict.
Israel on Thursday agreed to pause its military operation against Hamas militants in certain areas of northern Gaza for four hours each day, according to White House officials.
The pauses are aimed at allowing the flow of more humanitarian aid, as well as Palestinians who want to flee areas where the Israeli ground operation and airstrikes are most intense.
On Thursday, Israel also opened a second corridor along Gaza’s coast, which will allow more Palestinians to flee, White House officials said.
“What Israel announced yesterday will help,” Blinken said, adding that the U.S. is also discussing “concrete steps” that would allow more regular deliveries of humanitarian aid, as well as fuel for vital facilities, such as hospitals and water treatment plants.
More than 10,000 people, about 40% of them children, have been killed during Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza over the past month, according to Palestinian officials.
In reality, that figure may be even higher, according to a senior Biden administration official who delivered testimony to Congress on Wednesday.
Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the House Committee on Foreign Relations that it is “very possible” that the casualty rates are higher than what is being reported. “We will only know after the guns fall silent,” she said.
Israel’s military says its ground forces have encircled Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold, as part of an effort to divide the Palestinian enclave.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to eradicate Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza. Hamas militants last month carried out a bloody surprise attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians that left over 1,400 people dead.
Netanyahu has said there will be no cease-fire until Hamas releases the over 200 hostages it is thought to be holding.
Though global calls for a cease-fire have grown louder, U.S. officials oppose such a move, saying it would allow Hamas to regroup and eventually carry out more terrorist attacks.
The Mideast crisis has dominated Blinken’s trip, which included stops in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea.
However, especially in the second half of his trip, the top U.S. diplomat has attempted to maintain a focus on Asia, which he said is “the critical region for our future.”
On Friday, Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met their Indian counterparts, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, in New Delhi for talks aimed at boosting defense ties.
“Defense remains one of the most important pillars of our bilateral relationship,” said Singh at the outset of the so-called “2+2 Dialogue.”
“In spite of various emerging geopolitical challenges, we need to keep our focus on the important and long-term issues,” he added.
India and the United States, along with Japan and Australia, are a part of the Quad, a regional security grouping widely seen as a multilateral attempt to counter China’s rising influence.
India has seen tensions with China rise, especially since a deadly clash in 2020 along the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border.
But India has maintained close defense and economic ties with Russia – much to the disappointment of Western countries that have attempted to economically and diplomatically isolate Russia following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tensions also spiked in September after Canada, a close U.S. ally, alleged Indian involvement in the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist.
India has furiously denied the allegations. But U.S. officials want India to cooperate with Canada on an investigation into the killing.
Speaking to reporters after meeting Indian officials Friday, Blinken said India and Canada are “two of our closest friends and partners and of course we want to see them resolving any differences or disputes.”