RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — President Joe Biden on Saturday spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging the leaders to allow humanitarian aid to the region and affirmed his support for efforts to protect civilians.
The weekend calls in Washington came ahead of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s announcement that the U.S. was moving up a second carrier strike group in support of Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken intensified diplomatic outreach across the Middle East and beyond to rally an international response to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from expanding.
The broad U.S. efforts reflect the international concern about the number of civilians at risk and the potential ramifications of a prolonged war as Israel told Gaza residents to move south and Hamas urged people to remain in their homes. The Biden administration has not publicly urged Israel to restrain its response after the Hamas attack a week ago, but has emphasized the country’s commitment to following the rules of war.
Addressing a Human Rights Campaign dinner Saturday in Washington, Biden linked the humanitarian crisis in Gaza to different versions of hate that he said must be stopped.
“A week ago we saw hate manifest another way in the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Biden said, citing the 1,300 lives lost in Israel as well as “children, grandparents alike kidnapped, held hostage by Hamas.”
“The humanitarian crisis in Gaza — innocent Palestinian families and the vast majority that have nothing to do with Hamas — they’re being used as human shields,” he said. “We have to reject hate in every form.”
Blinken met with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh before stopping in the United Arab Emirates as he sought ways to help civilians trapped in between the fighting and to address the growing humanitarian crisis.
He also called his Chinese counterpart as Palestinians struggled to flee from areas of Gaza targeted by the Israeli military before an expected land offensive.
Austin as well on Saturday spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, stressing the importance of safeguarding civilians. Austin offered updates on U.S. efforts to boost air defense capabilities and munitions for Israeli forces that he noted were aimed at stemming escalation of war, according to a readout of the call.
Austin said the Biden administration was sending the additional carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean. The Eisenhower will join the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group, which is already sailing near Israel, to bolster U.S. presence there with a host of destroyers, fighter aircraft and cruisers.
In a statement announcing the deployment, Austin said sending the second carrier was “part of our effort to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war following Hamas’s attack on Israel.”
While Biden has spoken to Netanyahu multiple times since the Hamas attack, Saturday’s call was his first to Abbas, who runs the Palestinian Authority which controls the West Bank. According to a readout of the call, Abbas briefed the president on efforts to bring aid to Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza.
Biden reiterated to Abbas that “Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination,” according to the readout.
Biden spoke with Netanyahu to “reiterate unwavering U.S. support for Israel,” according to the readout. He briefed the Israeli leader on regional efforts to ensure civilian access to food, water and medical care.
The number of U.S. citizens killed rose to 29, U.S. officials said Satutday, and 15 were unaccounted for, as well as one lawful permanent resident.
Blinken, in his visits with Saudi and UAE leaders, also cited the need for humanitarian assistance and safe passage from those who wish to leave Gaza as he spoke to Arab audiences from their home turf, where his hosts put that issue at the top of their concerns.
An Israeli ground assault would worsen the plight of civilians in Gaza who are without power, fresh water or access to aid. Egyptian officials said the southern Rafah crossing would open later Saturday for the first time in days to allow foreigners out. Israel has advised all Palestinian civilians to flee south to avoid Israel’s continued offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza City.
Blinken also called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to seek his country’s help in preventing the war from spreading, asking Beijing to use whatever influence it has in the Mideast. Blinken’s spokesman declined to characterize Wang’s response but said the U.S. believes it and China have a shared interest in the region’s stability.
In Riyadh, Blinken and Prince Faisal stressed the importance of minimizing the harm to civilians as Israel prepared for an anticipated incursion against Hamas a week after the militant group’s unprecedented attack against Israel.
“As Israel pursues its legitimate right, to defending its people and to trying to ensure that this never happens again, it is vitally important that all of us look out for civilians, and we’re working together to do exactly that,” Blinken said.
“None of us want to see suffering by civilians on any side, whether it’s in Israel, whether it’s in Gaza, whether it’s anywhere else,” Blinken said.
The Saudi minister said the kingdom was committed to the protection of civilians.
“It’s a disturbing situation,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation. And, as you know, the primary sufferer of this situation are civilians, and civilian populations on both sides are being affected and it’s important, I think, that we all condemn the targeting of civilians in any form at any time by anyone.”
A U.S official said Saturday that Washington did not ask Israel to slow or hold off on the evacuation plan. The official said the discussions with Israeli leaders did stress the importance of taking into account the safety of civilians as Israel’s military moved to enforce the evacuation demand.
The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israeli leaders acknowledged the guidance and took it under advisement.
The U.S. worked out an agreement involving to allow Americans and other foreigners in Gaza to cross the Rafah border into Egypt, but the crossing remained blocked Saturday, with no sign that those gathered would be allowed through. There are an estimated 500 Americans living in Gaza, but that number is imprecise, officials have said.
The U.S. State Department on Saturday authorized the departure of nonemergency U.S. government personnel and their family members from the American Embassy in Jerusalem and an office in Tel Aviv.
Prince Faisal said it was imperative for the violence between Israel and Hamas to end.
“We need to work together to find a way out of this cycle of violence,” he said. “Without a concerted effort to end this constant return to violence, it will always be the civilians that suffer first, it will always be civilians on both sides that end up paying the price.”
While in Abu Dhabi, Blinken visited the Abrahamic Family House, a complex consisting of a church, a mosque and a synagogue representing the three Abrahamic faiths. He signed a tile with the words “Light in the Darkness.”
Blinken returned to Saudi Arabia ahead of an expected stop in Egypt on Sunday. He has already visited Israel, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain.
Baldor reported from aboard a U.S. military aircraft. Associated Press writers Tara Copp, Colleen Long and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.