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Secretary Antony Blinken heads back to Israel as many are calling for a cease-fire

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading back to Israel as the Palestinian death toll grows in Gaza. Many countries want Blinken to pressure Israeli leaders to help ease the humanitarian catastrophe. But Blinken has stopped short of calling for a cease-fire, saying Israel has an obligation to defend itself from Hamas. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Just before boarding his flight to Tel Aviv, Secretary Blinken said he'll be reminding Israel that it has a responsibility to limit civilian casualties in Gaza, though he says Hamas is making that hard by putting command posts under hospitals and schools.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: When I see a Palestinian child - a boy, a girl - pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building, that hits me in the gut as much as seeing a child in Israel or anywhere else.

KELEMEN: But he's not telling Israel to stop the bombardment. President Biden has talked about a pause to get hostages held by Hamas out of Gaza. Blinken has talked about the need for limited pauses to get aid into Gaza and allow Americans to get out. It's tricky diplomacy not just with Israel, but with regional partners, says Brian Katulis of the Middle East Institute.

BRIAN KATULIS: Here we are almost four weeks into the conflict, and we haven't seen major improvements in the safety and security of Palestinians. We still have mixed results on getting American citizens out of Gaza. So it - I think it doesn't bode well.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken is also trying to keep things stable in the West Bank amid concerns about rising attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers. Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, raised concerns about that at a recent hearing.

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CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Extremist settler violence against Palestinians has skyrocketed as more Palestinians are pushed off their land. As you know, all this does is strengthen Hamas, undermine the already weak PA and open another front in this war.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken says the PA, the Palestinian Authority, has tried to keep things stable in the West Bank, but Israel is withholding the PA's tax revenue.

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BLINKEN: The president himself has been very clear, very direct and very explicit about our concerns about extreme settler violence and the impact that that's having on the West Bank, including adding fuel to the fire.

KELEMEN: Blinken is also facing some dissent inside his department. Retired diplomat Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley says while so far only one official has resigned in protests, more could follow suit.

GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: So do keep your eye on that space because there is a lot of discomfort with where the United States is now, many people believing that it is our role to be the voice and the hand of - if not caution, of restraint.

KELEMEN: She says Blinken needs to be asking tough questions of Israel about what the goals are in Gaza and what's actually achievable. She doesn't believe eradicating Hamas is possible.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: And then that very tough question that needs to get louder, which is, how many civilians can be killed? What destruction of the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip is acceptable to meet that goal?

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken says he's going to Israel with some concrete ideas to protect civilians, though he says Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.