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Blinken says intense fighting in Gaza top challenge to distribute aid

FILE PHOTO: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hold a press conference in Washington

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said the challenge of deconfliction across Gaza, where the Israeli military has intensified its campaign against Hamas, was the top obstacle to ensuring humanitarian aid reaches people in need.

Speaking in a hybrid town hall for State Department employees worldwide that Reuters observed, Blinken said Washington was pushing the Israelis "every day" to get more aid into the densely populated enclave and better protect civilians.

"Within the south, the single biggest problem is deconfliction: Making sure that the humanitarians know that they can go some place safely, to get the aid that's gotten into Gaza to places in Gaza that actually need it," Blinken said in response to a question.

"That's an ongoing effort and an ongoing push. We're pushing on every single one of these lines every day. And we're also intensely pushing on the need to better protect civilians."

Aid agencies in Gaza are struggling to move and communicate as Israel keeps up its bombardment of both Gaza City in the north and parts of Khan Younis in the south.

At the start of the war, after a Hamas assault on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,200 people, Israel announced it was cutting off all supplies to Gaza. It later agreed to let in humanitarian aid but far less is entering now than before Oct 7.

Israel's military campaign in Gaza has killed at least 26,900 Palestinians since Oct. 7, health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say.

Intense fighting in the north was also an obstacle for aid distribution and for a U.N. assessment mission, a move agreed with Israel during Blinken's visit earlier this month but not implemented.

CALLING FOR CEASEFIRE

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, including Blinken at the State Department, has faced growing criticism from within the government over its policy on the Israel-Hamas war. Hundreds of U.S. government employees have advocated for a ceasefire in Gaza.

At Wednesday's meeting, about 20% of the nearly 190 questions posted in the virtual chatroom were about Gaza. Some diplomats asked why the administration wasn't calling for a ceasefire while others questioned why Washington was still sending weapons to Israel.

Other questions related to U.S. protection of Israel, combating antisemitism and the well-being of Israeli hostages.

Highlighting divisions, one employee asked in the chat why calling for a ceasefire was "so politically fraught" while another asked "why isn't anyone asking Hamas" to cease fire.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)