United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Egypt on his fifth regional tour since October last year, aimed at paving the way for an agreement between Israel and Hamas as the war in Gaza rages on.
Blinken was set on Tuesday to meet Egyptian mediators, who, together with other Arab counterparts, have tried to put together a deal to end the vicious war, which has killed more than 27,500 Palestinians, mostly women and children.
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Most of the besieged enclave’s 2.3 million population is displaced, facing severe shortages of food, water, medicine, and shelter, with the majority of Gaza now in ruins following nearly four months of Israeli bombardment.
The US, Egypt and Qatar have been working on a deal that would halt the war and enable the exchange of Israeli captives held by Hamas and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. However, it is reported that Israel and Hamas remain far apart in agreeing to the conditions.
US officials said Blinken hopes in Cairo – and then in Doha – to get an update on Hamas’s response to the proposed deal. He will then travel to Israel to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
However, Blinken’s diplomatic whirl around the region echoes a similar tour just a month ago, which produced few tangible results, if any.
It also comes amid statements from Israel that it plans to expand its ground attacks in Gaza.
Insisting it will not let up on its military push, despite claims that it is failing in its goal of destroying Hamas, Israel says it plans to move on Rafah, despite the majority of the population having been forced to flee to the city sitting on the border with Egypt.
United Nations humanitarian monitors have warned that Israeli evacuation orders now cover two-thirds of Gaza’s territory, driving thousands more people every day towards the border areas.
Egypt has warned that an Israeli deployment along the border would threaten the peace treaty the two countries signed more than four decades ago. Egypt fears an expansion of combat to the Rafah area could push terrified Palestinian civilians across the border, a scenario Egypt has said it is determined to prevent.
Saudi and Qatar also on the itinerary
The US diplomat’s arrival in Cairo comes a day after he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has said it remains interested in normalisation with Israel, but only if there is a credible roadmap to creating a Palestinian state.
The Department of State said the pair discussed “regional coordination to achieve an enduring end to the crisis in Gaza”.
Blinken and MBS also talked about humanitarian needs in Gaza and the Houthi attacks on Israel-linked ships and the warships of the US and the United Kingdom that the Iran-aligned Yemeni group has said are aimed at stopping the war and getting more aid to Palestinians.
He will visit Qatar later on Tuesday for further discussion with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani amid the efforts to secure a truce deal.
The meetings come shortly after the US launched dozens of deadly strikes on Iraq and Syria to avenge three US soldiers killed in a drone attack on northern Jordan. China, Russia and Iran condemned Washington for the strikes during an emergency UN Security Council meeting late on Monday.
Challenging Israel visit ahead
Blinken will be in Israel on Wednesday to meet Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials before heading to occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates said in a statement on Tuesday that Israel is welcoming Blinken “with an escalation of its crimes against Palestinian civilians and depriving them of their basic human rights”.
Blinken is heading to Israel amid US media reports of President Joe Biden’s anger with the Israeli premier over his divergence from Washington on key issues concerning the war and the future of the region.
Netanyahu has said he still wants “total victory” over Hamas and has undermined a two-state solution, while senior Israeli officials are touting plans to take over the Gaza Strip and build illegal settlements there.
Netanyahu’s far-right allies have warned him of political consequences if he strikes a weak deal with Hamas.
Meanwhile, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank continue to be subject to violent and deadly raids by Israeli forces on a daily basis.
Negotiations over an agreement have included putting a stop to the fighting for several weeks, where Hamas and Israel would conduct another exchange of prisoners.
Dire humanitarian conditions
According to the UN, Israel has been significantly hampering the flow of aid to the besieged enclave, where most of the 2.3 million population faces famine and is in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday that Israel’s “evacuation orders” now cover two-thirds of the Gaza Strip, affecting an area that was home to 77 percent of the population.
Palestinians in the enclave face life-threatening conditions in addition to the falling Israeli bombs, which according to the UN include severe shortages of water, food and medication, along with a rapid spread of diseases.
OCHA said the newly displaced people have been getting only 1.5-2 litres of water per day to drink, cook and wash, and highlighted a significant increase in cases of chronic diarrhoea among children.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have said they are hoping Blinken’s visit to the region could deliver a respite from the fighting, as the displaced face an imminent assault by Israel.