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Blinken says gap remains between Israel's intent to protect civilians and results

U.S. Secretary of State Blinken holds press conference with British Foreign Secretary Cameron at the State Department in Washington

By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday criticized Israel's conduct in its southern Gaza offensive, saying there was a "gap" between its intent to protect civilians and what has been happening on the ground.

Speaking at a news conference in Washington following a meeting with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, Blinken laid out concrete steps to ensure civilians are out of harm's way and the areas they go to are supplied with food, medicine and water.

"As we stand here almost a week into this campaign into the south ... it remains imperative that Israel put a premium on civilian protection. And there does remain a gap between, exactly what I said when I was there, the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we're seeing on the ground," Blinken said.

Top U.S. officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as well as Blinken, have urged Israel publicly to conduct a more surgical offensive in southern Gaza to avoid the heavy civilian casualties inflicted by its attacks in the north.

But since a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas broke down last Friday, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in Israel's offensive in the south.

So far this week, U.S. officials have been reluctant to offer an assessment of Israel's operations in the south and Blinken's comments are the first clear evaluation of the offensive.

On top of having safe areas, Blinken said, it would be important to have communications in place so that people know where they can go and when, and that the periods that they can move from one place to the other are clear.

Making sure that the pauses apply to not one neighborhood but to a broader area so people have the confidence to know they can move out of harm's way was also important, Blinken said, and he urged that those areas be fully stocked with food, medicine and water.

Ensuring that those areas are clearly out of the conflict zone and no military means are used there was also key, Blinken said.

"So this is something that we're talking about with the Israelis on a regular basis, including, as recently as today and including in the president's conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier today," Blinken added.

Israel battled Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip's biggest cities on Thursday, leaving hundreds more Palestinians dead as almost 2 million displaced Gazans struggled to find safe refuge amid critical shortages of food and shelter.

Residents reported fierce battles going on east of Khan Younis, southern Gaza's largest city, and Palestinian health officials said three Gazans were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a house in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Humeyra Pamuk, Rami Ayyub and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chris Reese and Daniel Wallis)