Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stood next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Thursday at a military base in Tel Aviv and promised to help defend Israel “as long as America exists.”
But he also suggested the need for restraint in Israel’s military strikes in Gaza after deadly Hamas attacks over the weekend, saying “it’s important to take every possible precaution to prevent harming civilians.”
Mr. Blinken said the main message from President Biden was that “we will always be there by your side.”
“Too often in the past, leaders have equivocated in the face of terrorist attacks against Israel and its people,” Mr. Blinken said. “This is — this must be — a moment for moral clarity.”
Hamas terrorists and other fighters crossed the border into southern Israel on Saturday, killing some 1,200 people, including children and the elderly, and abducting at least 150 people. At least 27 Americans have been confirmed dead, and Mr. Blinken noted that the citizens of 36 nations were among the dead and missing.
Mr. Blinken said he had talked with Mr. Netanyahu about how Israel should approach defending itself after suffering such an extraordinarily brutal terrorist attack.
“The value that we place on human life and human dignity — that’s what makes us who we are,” he said.
While Mr. Blinken’s pronouncements of the need for Israel to defend itself have been unwavering, the remarks were his most extensive yet on the need for caution in Israel’s military response in Gaza, where Hamas is based and where the Israel Defense Forces have been carrying out airstrikes ahead of a possible ground invasion.
Hours after Mr. Blinken’s appearance at the military base, aides running an official social media account of Mr. Netanyahu on X, formerly known as Twitter, posted gruesome images of victims of Hamas. The text said the prime minister had shown those images to Mr. Blinken, and at an evening news conference Mr. Blinken confirmed that Israeli officials had shown him and his aides graphic photographs and videos.
“It’s hard to find the right words,” he said. “It’s beyond what anyone would ever want to imagine.” “A baby, an infant, riddled with bullets. Soldiers beheaded. Young people burned alive in their cars.”
The images, he said, harkened back to the violence of the Islamic State — a comparison that many Israelis have begun making.
The Israeli military said it had recovered the bodies of around 1,500 Palestinian assailants since Saturday morning. When asked about the possible goals of Hamas in carrying out the attacks, Mr. Blinken said he could only speculate.
“The simplest explanation may be the most compelling — this is pure evil,” he said.
He also noted that the United States and Israel had been engaged in efforts to try to get Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, and that Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran were opposed to those talks. U.S. officials and analysts say the attacks may make the talks more difficult.
Washington has begun sending armaments to Israel as the country starts what it says will be a long war with Hamas.
Mr. Blinken and other American officials are talking to their counterparts across the Middle East to try to secure the release of the hostages held by Hamas and to deliver a message through intermediaries to other adversaries of Israel — notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran — that they should not get involved in the conflict.
Mr. Blinken’s visit came as Mr. Netanyahu was overseeing preparations for a possible ground offensive and the continuing bombing campaign in Gaza.
Mr. Blinken said at his evening news conference that he and Mr. Netanyahu had talked about the possibilities for safe passage of civilians from Gaza, adding that those discussions would continue in the coming days. Israel has cut off basic services to Gaza and has not allowed anyone to leave the narrow seaside strip of land, packed with more than two million people, most living in poverty. U.S. officials said 500 to 600 American citizens are in Gaza.
In his morning appearance, Mr. Blinken opened his statement with an emotional reference to his Jewish background and the Holocaust.
“I come before you not only as the U.S. secretary of state, but also as a Jew,” he said. “I understand on a personal level the harrowing echoes that Hamas’s massacres carry for Israeli Jews and for Jews everywhere.”