(Bloomberg) -- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting with Israeli leaders on Thursday, stressed the need to comply with international law once fighting resumes in Gaza, a shift in tone that underscored increasing American concern about the humanitarian toll of the military campaign to destroy Hamas.
“The secretary reaffirmed the United States’ support for Israel’s right to protect itself from terrorist violence in compliance with international humanitarian law and urged Israel to take every possible measure to avoid civilian harm,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said after Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While encouraging further extensions to a current cease-fire, the Biden administration continues to back Israel in its struggle against Hamas after the militant group’s gunmen infiltrated Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,200 and taking some 240 people hostage.
Blinken reinforced 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 if Israel pursues its plan to focus renewed military options on southern Gaza. Civilians in the north of Gaza have fled south to escape fighting.
More than 15,000 people have died in Gaza since the war began, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
Blinken’s visit coincided with an agreement between Israel and Hamas to lengthen the current truce until late Thursday, allowing for the release of more hostages held in Gaza by the militant group, which is designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. The talks over hostages have mainly been mediated by Qatar, with American and Egyptian involvement.
Late Thursday afternoon, two of the 10 hostages expected to be released under the day’s extended cease-fire were transferred by Hamas to the Red Cross and have arrived in Israel, according to the Israeli military. Hamas was expected to hand over additional hostages to the Red Cross later in the day, the army said.
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 10th 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.
After an exchange on Wednesday, 145 hostages were still believed held in Gaza. It isn’t yet known how many of them are dead or are soldiers.
The pause in the fighting and hopes for further diplomatic progress boosted Israel’s stocks and currency. Tel Aviv’s main equity index has jumped almost 20% in dollar terms this month. The shekel is poised for a 9% rally against the dollar, the best performance among currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
It may be a temporary boost. “I told him: We have sworn, I have sworn, to eliminate Hamas. Nothing will stop us,” Netanyahu told Blinken according to a statement from his office.
Kirby, the US spokesman, said “we have been very consistent and clear with our Israeli counterparts that we do not support a move” by Israeli forces into southern Gaza “unless they have adequately accounted for the protection of innocent human life, civilian life” there, “with the understanding that there’s a whole heck of a lot more innocent civilians in southern Gaza than there were a week or two ago because the Israelis opened up corridors for them to move south.”
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 the 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.
Hamas’s military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, asked its forces to remain on high alert, in anticipation of a renewal of fighting should the sides fail to prolong the truce again.
Israel’s troops are “ready for the continuation of the war,” army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Wednesday night.
While the cease-fire in Gaza continues 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.
Herzog told Blinken the Jerusalem incident was another example of the “endless war that we are fighting against terror organizations, especially Hamas.”
--With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Akayla Gardner.
(Updates with White House official beginning in eighth paragraph)
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