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    Sunday, February 25, 2024

    Biden says 74 U.S. dual nationals have left Gaza Strip

    Israeli soldiers stand next to the grave of late Israeli Staff Sgt. Shay Arvas at the Holon military cemetery, outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023.Arvas, 20, was killed on Oct 31, during IDF's ground operation in Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
    Residents of Kibbutz Kfar Azza shout slogans during a demonstration in solidarity with friends and relatives held hostage in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. The small farming community was overrun by Hamas militants during a bloody cross-border raid from Gaza on Oct. 7. Eighteen residents were kidnapped and taken to Gaza, among them seven children, the youngest 3 years old. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    Palestinians evacuate wounded people following an Israeli airstrike in Bureij refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)
    A man sits on the rubble as others wander among debris of buildings that were targeted by Israeli airstrikes in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Abed Khaled)

    WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said Thursday that 74 U.S. citizens with dual citizenship have left the Gaza Strip, announcing the development as he dispatched his top diplomat to the Middle East for consultation with Israeli and Jordanian leaders concerning the Israel-Hamas war.

    “We got out today 74 American folks out that are dual citizens," Biden said in a brief exchange with reporters as he hosted Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader for an Oval Office meeting.

    The White House has previously said some 500 to 600 U.S. citizens had been trapped in Gaza since the start of the Oct. 7 Israel-Hamas war. Since then, the nearly 4-week-old conflict continues to rage on with no end in sight.

    The administration said earlier this week that five Americans were among dozens of dual citizens who were able to get out of the Strip where a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the administration was hopeful that additional U.S. citizens would be able to leave Gaza on Thursday and the pace of Americans who want to leave will now move at an accelerated pace.

    Kirby said Qatar, which maintains lines of communication with Hamas, was particularly helpful in smoothing the way for the Americans to be able to leave Gaza.

    Biden made the announcement as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken set off for another frenzied trip to the Middle East. Blinken is returning to the region with a somewhat more nuanced message than he offered in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ bloody attack on Israel and Israel's military response.

    As he did last month, Blinken will stress U.S. support for Israel and try to prevent a wider Mideast war as he visits Israel and Jordan starting on Friday. But Blinken's agenda this time is more crowded and more complex as the conflict intensifies and the Biden administration grapples with competing domestic and international interests and anger.

    He'll push for the evacuation of more foreigners from Gaza and more humanitarian aid for the territory. He’ll press Israel to rein in violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank committed by Jewish settlers. And, he’ll stress the importance of protecting civilians — even though the administration has yet to offer any criticism of Israel for strikes that have killed thousands of civilians in Gaza.

    “We will be talking about concrete steps that can and should be taken to minimize harm to men, women and children in Gaza," Blinken told reporters as he departed for a trip that will take him to Israel and Jordan. Further stops in the Middle East are possible, "This is something that the United States is committed to."

    Biden also met Thursday with Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who is in Washington for a White House summit with Western Hemisphere leaders.

    Boric earlier this week recalled Chile's ambassador to Israel over concerns about the killing of civilians in Gaza. Neither Boric nor Biden spoke to the decision by Chile, one of several countries that's taken diplomatic action against Israel over how it’s prosecuting the war, during a brief appearance before reporters at the start of their meeting.

    But following his meeting with Biden, Boric told reporters gathered just outside the West Wing that Israel's “response has been disproportionate and it is violating humanitarian international law”

    “What is happening in the Gaza Strip is simply unacceptable,” said Boric, who also condemned Hamas's attack on Israel.

    The White House in a statement said Biden “made clear" to Boric "that the United States will continue to stand with Israel and affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself in line with international humanitarian law.”

    Blinken, while calling for brief pauses in airstrikes and fighting for humanitarian purposes is expected to continue to oppose growing calls for a broader cease-fire. Biden said Wednesday he thought there should be a humanitarian “pause” in the Israel-Hamas war in order to get “prisoners” out.

    But, Blinken will also be introducing a new element to the U.S. list of priorities: the need for Israel and its neighbors to begin to consider what a post-conflict Gaza will look like, who will govern it, how it can be made secure and how to establish an independent Palestinian state.

    U.S. officials, including Biden and Blinken, have said repeatedly that they do not believe an Israeli re-occupation of Gaza is feasible, and Israel agrees. But what comes next has been little explored beyond brief comments Blinken made Tuesday in congressional testimony when he talked about the possibility of a revitalized Palestinian Authority and perhaps Arab states and international organizations playing a significant role in post-conflict Gaza.

    Blinken said he would speak on the U.S.'s commitment to working with partners to set the conditions for a durable peace in the Middle East, including through the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Biden administration in recent days has stepped up calls for Israel and Palestinians to refocus on finding agreement on a long-sought two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict once the war ends.

    The push for a two-state solution — one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state — has long eluded U.S. presidents and Middle East diplomats and had been on the back burner by Biden early in his tenure.

    Blinken said Palestinian sovereignty is “the best guarantor, and maybe the only guarantor of a secure Jewish democratic Israel.”

    The change in messaging reflects a shift in the international view of the war, of which Blinken has heard plenty since his last trip to the region when he traveled to Israel and six Arab states — several multiple times — in a frenetic shuttle diplomacy mission that required numerous last-minute schedule changes.

    His itinerary after Jordan remains uncertain, although he will attend a Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in Japan next week before traveling on to South Korea and India for much broader discussions, including on Russia's war in Ukraine and China.

    The shift in public opinion has been palpable. After receiving a wave of global sympathy after the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel now faces widespread criticism for its massive military response, something that many believe is fueling a worldwide spike in antisemitic violence as well as incidents targeting Muslims.

    As the situation in Gaza deteriorates, U.S. officials are keenly aware that they risk severe damage in ties with the Arab world and beyond if the U.S. fails to use its influence with its close ally Israel to keep what’s already a humanitarian disaster from getting even worse.

    Underscoring those concerns, Blinken will be flying into a diplomatic maelstrom between Israel and Jordan, which on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Israel and told Israel's envoy not to return to Amman. Jordan's foreign minister said the decision would not be reconsidered until after the Gaza operation is stopped.

    Blinken stressed that the administration is concerned about the loss of innocent civilian lives in both Israel and Gaza.

    “When I see a Palestinian child, a boy or 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,” Blinken said. “So, this is something that we have an obligation to respond to, and we will.”

    AP correspondent Sagar Meghani and AP writers Chris Megarian and Will Weissert contributed reporting.

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