United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken will head to the Middle East amid a ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinian factions in Gaza, but tensions have remained high in occupied East Jerusalem after Israeli police escorted Jewish settlers to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Sunday.
Blinken will depart on Monday for a short visit to Israel, the occupied West Bank, Jordan and Egypt for what will be the administration of President Joe Biden’s highest level in-person meeting on the most recent escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which began on May 10 and lasted for 11 days.
At least 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, were killed in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
At least 12 Israelis, including two children, were killed by rockets fired from Gaza before the ceasefire was reached on Friday.
Health authorities in the occupied West Bank have separately confirmed 27 killed in that region, bringing the total to 275 across all Palestinian territories.
“At the request of President Biden, I am traveling to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, and Amman to meet with the parties to support their efforts to solidify a ceasefire,” the secretary of state said in a tweet on Monday.
At the request of President Biden, I am traveling to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, and Amman to meet with the parties to support their efforts to solidify a ceasefire. The United States has engaged in intensive diplomacy to bring an end to the hostilities and reduce tensions.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 24, 2021
The 11 days of fighting were preceded by protests over the planned forced expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem and crackdowns by Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The violent storming of the mosque on Islam’s holy night of Laylat al-Qadr caused global outrage.
While the administration has been roundly criticised for appearing to take a hands-off approach to the violence, in the statement on Monday, Biden defended Washington’s “quiet, intensive diplomacy to bring about a ceasefire”.
Biden said Blinken will meet with “Israeli leaders about our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. He will continue our administration’s efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders, after years of neglect.
Blinken’s primary goal will be to shore up the ceasefire in the hope that it will hold and discuss an urgent infusion of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, according to a senior State Department official, who said it was too early for wider peace talks.
“Our primary focus is on maintaining the ceasefire, getting the assistance to the people who need it,” the official told reporters.
“The United States remains committed to the two-state solution … We are not wavering from that in any way. It’s probably premature at this time to invite the parties to Washington or anywhere else,” the official said.
The administration had previously sent envoy Hady Amr to the region in an attempt to calm the situation.
Blinken’s visit comes as Egyptian mediators have been shuttling between Israel and the Gaza Strip, which is governed by Hamas, in attempts to sustain the ceasefire. The mediators have also met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.
It also comes after the United Nations Security Council on Saturday called for “full adherence to the ceasefire”. It was the panel’s first statement on the situation since the violence began, after the US had four times blocked proposals calling for a ceasefire.
‘Way toward two states’
Critics have questioned the Biden administration’s behind-the-scenes approach, arguing that public pressure will be more effective in influencing Israel in the long run.
Still, in a series of television interviews on Sunday, Blinken credited Biden’s strategy in bringing about the ceasefire, saying the US would increase efforts to “start putting in place the conditions that would allow both sides to engage in a meaningful and positive way toward two states”.
He also defended US military support and arms sales to Israel, which have been increasingly questioned by some Democratic legislators amid the escalation.
The US gives about $2.8bn a year in aid to Israel, with virtually no conditions. Legislators in the Senate and House last week introduced legislation to block a $735m arms deal to Israel, a move that is all but assured to fail.
Blinken said the US remains “committed to Israel’s defence”.