Blinken announces deal to launch UN assessment mission in northern Gaza

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(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken emerged from a series of meetings with high-level Israeli officials on Tuesday with an agreement to launch a United Nations-led assessment mission that will pave the way for civilians displaced by warfare in northern Gaza to eventually return home — a significant step toward restoring a sense of normalcy in the besieged enclave.

“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 U.N. to carry out an assessment mission,” Blinken said during a press conference in Tel Aviv, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “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,” Blinken cautioned. “But the mission will start a process that evaluates these obstacles and how they can be overcome.”

Blinken also forcefully defended Israel from allegations of genocide brought by South Africa before the U.N.’s highest legal body, the International Court of Justice, claiming the case “distracts the world” from vital efforts tied to the conflict.

“Moreover, the charge of genocide is meritless,” Blinken asserted. “It’s particularly galling given that those who are attacking Israel — Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, as well as their supporter, Iran — continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews.”

But while in Israel during one of several visits he has made to the country since Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise terrorist attacks, Blinken did publicly express some criticism of its government, particularly right-wing officials’ opposition to the creation of an independent Palestinian state — urging them from the podium to “stop taking steps that undercut Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves effectively.”

The secretary was also asked about calls by two Israeli ministers for the transfer of Palestinians out of Gaza, a stance the State Department slammed as “inflammatory and irresponsible” last week.

Blinken said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had assured him that forced resettlement of Palestinians outside of the enclave’s border was not the position of his government.

But even convincing the Israeli government to allow the U.N. to explore pathways for those displaced within Gaza’s perimeter was far from guaranteed.

Since the outbreak of the war, U.S. officials say the Israeli government has been reluctant to allow various types of outside assistance to enter into Gaza out of concern that it will inadvertently benefit Hamas fighters, and that changing the country’s stance often requires face-to-face diplomacy with high-level cabinet members.

Nearly two million people across the Gaza Strip — the overwhelming majority of its population — have been displaced at some point during the conflict, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

The agency also says it has had extremely limited ability to distribute humanitarian assistance in northern Gaza and share information about conditions in the area since shortly after the fighting began.

Blinken said he had also discussed Israel’s plans to scale down its campaign during closed door meetings, and reaffirmed the Biden administration’s enduring commitment to supporting its fight against Hamas until the threat posed by the designated terrorist group was eliminated.

“We believe Israel has achieved significant progress toward this fundamental objective,” he said.

Some 1,200 people were killed in Israel in the Oct. 7 terror attack, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office. More than 23,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

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