As Hamas released more hostages on Thursday under a fragile truce deal, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Israeli leaders and urged them to take concrete steps to reduce civilian deaths before the military resumed an expected offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
Mr. Blinken said he had made clear to Israeli leaders the “imperative” of a “clear plan in place that puts a premium on protecting civilians” before any military operation begins in southern Gaza. “The Israeli government agreed with that approach,” he said at a news conference in Tel Aviv, without citing any specific Israeli commitments.
With the pause in fighting set to expire in a matter of hours, Mr. Blinken said that the United States did not oppose a resumption of Israel’s offensive despite international pressure for a long-term cease-fire, saying that Israel had a right to protect itself after Hamas’s Oct. 7 cross-border attack.
“Israel has the right to do everything it can to ensure that the slaughter that Hamas carried out on Oct. 7 can never be repeated,” Mr. Blinken said on Thursday evening after meeting with Israeli leaders. “Hamas cannot remain in control of Gaza. It cannot retain the capacity to repeat that carnage.”
Mr. Blinken’s visit, which included stops in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, came amid days of public pronouncements by the Israeli leaders that a resumption of fighting was inevitable.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated on Thursday that the aim of Israel’s military campaign was to crush Hamas. It is a goal that Israel, as well U.S. officials, say remains far from complete, even as the number of people killed in Gaza, most of them women and children, has soared past 13,000, according to Gazan officials.
“We have sworn, I have sworn, to eliminate Hamas,” Mr. Netanyahu said after meeting with Mr. Blinken. “Nothing will stop us.”
Mr. Blinken sought to shape the expected next phase of Israeli attacks on Hamas to limit civilian casualties, protect critical infrastructure like hospitals and power plants, and ensure the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
But he did not explain how humanitarian aid might continue to reach Gaza if Israel’s military resumes its offensive, as Mr. Netanyahu has vowed. The truce is set to expire at 7 a.m. Friday local time.
Mr. Blinken suggested that his call for protecting Palestinian civilians had reached receptive ears, at least in general terms. He also said Israel should allow civilians who fled from northern Gaza in the first weeks of the war to return home, adding, “There must be no enduring internal displacement.”
His visit came as mediators in Qatar on Thursday worked to extend an initial temporary pause, announcing moments before it was to expire that it had been extended for one day — until Friday morning. Negotiators have hoped that the succession of short-term pauses would pave the way for negotiating a longer truce and, ultimately, the end of the war.
The new phase of Israel’s offensive is expected to focus on southern Gaza, where, U.S. and Israeli officials say, Hamas’s senior leaders are hunkered down. U.S. officials have said they do not believe that Israel will back down from resuming its war against the group.
After seven weeks of intense fighting and bombardment in Gaza, the pause between Israel and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, has provided a week of relative calm for the territory’s 2.2 million residents. The truce has been predicated on the daily release of women and children abducted by Hamas in exchange for freeing groups of Palestinian woman and minors from Israeli jails, in addition to the entry of aid into the strip.
Now, negotiations over further releases have reached a pivotal, perhaps more difficult, phase.
Zaher Jabareen, a member of the Hamas Politburo, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that the group was ready to continue exchanging women and children held captive but would ask for much more when negotiating for captured Israeli soldiers as part of its goal to free all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
“We need to finish this issue forever,” he said. Among the 240 people abducted into Gaza last month, Hamas is believed to have seized a few dozen Israeli soldiers.
As part of the temporary truce deal, Hamas has been releasing 10 Israeli hostages daily in exchange for 30 Palestinian prisoners or detainees. More than 100 people have been freed from Gaza under the agreement — in addition to foreign nationals whose releases were negotiated separately.
On Thursday, Hamas released eight more Israeli hostages, including two minors and six women. Among them were Mia Schem, 21, a dual French and Israeli national, and Amit Soussana, 40, an Israeli.
Ms. Schem was abducted from the site of the Tribe of Nova music festival, where at least 260 people were killed during Hamas’s attack. She was seen in a video released by the group on Oct. 16.
Overnight Thursday, Israel also released the prominent Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi among other women and children freed from Israeli prisons. She was technically part of the Wednesday group of releases, but hers was delayed into Thursday morning.
The Israeli military arrested Ms. Tamimi, 22, in a predawn raid on Nov. 6 on suspicion of inciting violence and calling for terrorist activity. But she was not charged in the nearly three weeks she had been held in Damon Prison, near Haifa, Israel.
Thirty more Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli prisons later on Thursday as part of the cease-fire deal, the Israeli Prison Service announced.
Mr. Blinken’s visit was his fourth to Israel since the Hamas-led attacks last month that Israeli officials said killed 1,200 people. In addition to Mr. Netanyahu, he met the Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, in Ramallah.
The visits came at a time of particular tension in Israel. At least three people were killed and six others wounded near a bus stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Thursday morning after two Palestinian gunmen opened fire, in the deadliest shooting to hit the capital since Israel launched its retaliatory war in Gaza. Hamas later said the gunmen were members of its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades.
In a statement on the Telegram messaging app, Hamas called the attack “a natural response” to Israel’s “brutal massacres” in Gaza.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service identified the gunmen as Murad Nimr, 38, and Ibrahim Nimr, 30, Palestinian brothers from East Jerusalem who, it said in a statement, had been jailed for what it called “terrorist activity.”
Mr. Blinken said the attack was a reminder “of the threat from terrorism that Israel and Israelis face every single day.”
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