JERUSALEM – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a Middle East tour on Tuesday to strengthen the ceasefire between Israel and the militant rulers of the Gaza Strip, Hamas.
He will face the same obstacles that have stifled a broader peace process for more than a decade, including Hawk Israeli leadership, Palestinian divisions, and deeply ingrained tensions over Jerusalem and its holy places.
“There is still a lot of hard work ahead of us to restore hope, respect and trust in the communities, but we have seen the alternative and that should lead us all to rediscover our efforts to keep peace and improve the lives of Israelis and people Palestinians to double, “Blinken said on Tuesday in a press appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his arrival in Israel.
The 11-day Gaza War killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused widespread destruction in the impoverished coastal area. Blinken is expected to focus on coordinating reconstruction without dealing with the militant Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip, who are considered terrorists by Israel and western countries, including the US.
The ceasefire, which went into effect on Friday, has stood so far but has not addressed any of the underlying issues.
Blinken is the highest-ranking U.S. 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 government had hoped to get the US out of the region’s persistent conflicts and focus on competition with China and climate change. But like so many of its predecessors, another outbreak of violence pulled it back to the Middle East.
Netanyahu is fighting for his political life after a fourth inconclusive election in two years and is increasingly criticized by Israelis who say he ended the offensive prematurely without stopping the Palestinian rocket attacks by force or a more severe blow to the militant Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip to move.
The war was sparked by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy site. The protests were directed against Israel’s surveillance of the area during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened displacement of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
The evictions were suspended shortly before fighting broke out in Gaza, but legal proceedings are expected to resume in the coming weeks. Police briefly clashed with protesters in Al-Aqsa on Friday, hours after the ceasefire entered into force. The site is revered by both Jews and Muslims and has seen multiple outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years.
Netanyahu is unlikely to make public concessions on al-Aqsa or the evictions as that would give way to Hamas’ 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 the assailant in what they termed a terrorist attack.
According to the PA’s official Wafa news agency, a Palestinian was shot dead by covert Israeli forces early Tuesday near Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority headquarters are located. Images shared online showed the man identified as Ahmed Jamil Fahed, bloody and lying on the street. The Israeli army referred questions to the border police, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Blinken will not meet with the other war party, the militant Islamic 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 incapacitated by recent events.
Abbas, who last month canceled the first Palestinian elections in 15 years when it emerged that his broken Fatah movement would suffer an embarrassing defeat, is viewed by many Palestinians as fully legitimized. A crowd of believers in Al-Aqsa sang against his Palestinian Authority and in support of Hamas on Friday.
But Abbas is still seen internationally as a representative of the Palestinian people and an important partner in the long-defunct peace process.
Blinken will also visit neighboring Egypt and Jordan, which made peace with Israel decades ago and acted as mediators in the conflict. Egypt managed to broker the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip after the Biden government urged Israel to suspend its offensive.
Announcing the visit, Biden said Blinken will work with regional partners on a “coordinated international effort to ensure that immediate aid reaches the Gaza Strip”.
The government had received harsh criticism for responding to the deadly violence, including from democratic allies in Congress who were calling for a tougher stance on Israel. Biden reiterated repeatedly that Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Gaza.
The government has defended its response by saying it had conducted intense but calm high-level diplomacy to support a ceasefire.
In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Blinken said the government is now focused on “building something more positive” and said Palestinians and Israelis deserve “equal measures of opportunity, security, dignity”.
He said the time is not the right time to resume negotiations immediately, but steps could be taken to repair the damage caused by Israeli air strikes that destroyed hundreds of homes and damaged Gaza’s infrastructure.
The narrow coastal area, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, has been subjected to a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power from the Abbas forces in 2007. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from importing weapons, while the Palestinians and human rights groups view it as a form of collective punishment.