JERUSALEM – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began a tour of the Middle East on Tuesday aimed at strengthening the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s militant rulers, Hamas.
It will face the same obstacles that have stifled a broader peace process for more than a decade, including a hawkish Israeli leadership, Palestinian divisions and deeply rooted tensions around Jerusalem and its holy sites.
“There is still a lot of work to be done to restore hope, respect and trust in communities, but we have seen the alternative and it should lead us all to redouble our efforts to preserve peace and improve lives. Israelis and Palestinians, ”Blinken said Tuesday during a press appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving in Israel.
He also said the two discussed Israel’s security needs, including the United States replenishing the Iron Dome air defense system and a potential United States return to the Iran nuclear deal, including the former President Donald Trump has stepped down.
“We will continue to strengthen all aspects of our long-standing partnership, and this includes close consultations with Israel as we did today on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna,” Blinken said, referring to negotiations with Tehran.
The 11-day war in Gaza has killed more than 250 people, most of them Palestinians, and caused widespread destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Blinken should focus on coordinating reconstruction without engaging with the militant Hamas leadership of Gaza, who are viewed as terrorists by Israel and Western countries, including the United States.
The truce that went into effect on Friday has held so far, but it hasn’t resolved any of the underlying issues.
Blinken is the most senior US official to visit the region since President Joe Biden took office. He was greeted on the tarmac by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and other officials.
The administration had hoped to pull the United States out of the region’s intractable conflicts and focus on competing with China and climate change. But like many of his predecessors, he was brought back to the Middle East by a new outbreak of violence.
Netanyahu is fighting for his political life after an inconclusive fourth election in two years and faces growing criticism from Israelis who say he ended the offensive prematurely, without forcibly stopping Palestinian rocket attacks or carrying a harder blow to the militant Hamas leadership in Gaza.
The war was sparked by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque, a peak holy site. The protests targeted Israel’s maintenance of order in the region during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threat of eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
The deportations were suspended just before the fighting began in Gaza, but the judicial process is expected to resume in the coming weeks. Police briefly clashed with protesters in Al-Aqsa on Friday, hours after the ceasefire went into effect. The site is revered by Jews and Muslims and has seen several outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years.
Netanyahu is unlikely to make any public concessions on Al-Aqsa or the evictions, as he would be seen as giving in to Hamas’s demands.
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Adding to the tension, an Israeli soldier and a civilian were stabbed and wounded in East Jerusalem on Monday before police shot and killed the assailant in what they described as a terrorist attack.
A Palestinian was shot dead by secret Israeli forces early Tuesday near Ramallah, where the PA headquarters are located, according to the PA’s official Wafa news agency. Images circulating online appeared to show the man, identified as Ahmed Jamil Fahed, bloodied and lying in the street. The IDF addressed questions to the border police, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Blinken will not meet the other party to the war, the Islamic militant group Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Instead, he will travel to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has no power in Gaza and has been sidelined by recent events.
Abbas, who annulled the first Palestinian elections in 15 years last month when it emerged that his fractured Fatah movement would suffer an embarrassing defeat, is seen by many Palestinians as having lost all legitimacy. A crowd of Al-Aqsa worshipers chanted Friday against his Palestinian Authority and in support of Hamas.
But Abbas is still viewed internationally as the representative of the Palestinian people and a key partner in the long-lost peace process.
Blinken will also travel to neighboring Egypt and Jordan, which made peace with Israel decades ago and acted as mediators in the conflict. Egypt succeeded in negotiating the Gaza truce after the Biden administration urged Israel to end its offensive.
Biden announced the visit, saying Blinken would work with regional partners on a “coordinated international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza.”
The administration had been heavily criticized for its apparent initial response to the murderous violence, including from Democratic allies in Congress who demanded it take a tougher line on Israel. Biden has repeatedly asserted what he said is Israel’s right to defend against rocket attacks from Gaza.
The administration defended its response by saying it had engaged in intense but silent high-level diplomacy to support a ceasefire.
In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Blinken said the administration is now striving to “build something more positive,” saying Palestinians and Israelis deserve “equal measures of opportunity, security and of dignity ”.
He said the time was not right for an immediate resumption of negotiations, but that steps could be taken to repair the damage caused by the Israeli airstrikes, which destroyed hundreds of homes and damaged infrastructure in Gaza.
The narrow coastal territory, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, has been subjected to a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from Abbas’s forces in 2007. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent the Hamas imports weapons, while Palestinians and Palestinian human rights groups see it as a form of collective punishment.