Antony Blinken in Middle East, says he is focused on Gaza ceasefire deal

Top US diplomat says countries in the region should press Hamas to accept Biden’s ceasefire proposal.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures as he arrives at the airport in Cairo, Egypt [Amr Nabil /Pool/AFP]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in the Middle East on his latest trip to the region, which he said will focus on Washington’s Gaza truce proposal and the future of the Palestinian territory after the war.

Blinken met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo on Monday, renewing US calls for the Palestinian group Hamas to accept a truce deal presented by President Joe Biden late in May.

Speaking to reporters before leaving Egypt, Blinken squarely blamed Hamas for prolonging the war, saying that the Palestinian group is an “outlier” in the region for not agreeing to the US deal.

“My message to governments throughout the region, to people throughout the region, if you want a ceasefire, press Hamas to say yes,” he told reporters.

Blinken arrived in Israel later on Monday and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will hold further talks in Qatar and Jordan this week.

The State Department said Blinken reaffirmed the “ironclad” US commitment to Israel’s security during his meeting with Netanyahu.

“The Secretary reiterated that the United States and other world leaders will stand behind the comprehensive proposal outlined by President Biden that would lead to an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all hostages, and a significant and sustained increase in humanitarian assistance for distribution throughout Gaza,” the State Department said in a statement.

While Blinken portrayed the truce plan as Biden’s proposal, when Biden made the deal public, he said it was an Israeli plan.

The proposal would see a six-week pause in fighting and the release of some Israeli captives in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, enabling negotiations for a permanent ceasefire.

While US officials have insisted that Israel agreed to the proposal, various Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have vowed to continue fighting until the elimination of Hamas.

Days before Biden announced his initiative, a top Israeli official said the military would fight in Gaza until at least the end of the year.

For its part, Hamas has said it will only agree to a deal that would lead to a lasting end to the war and the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Hamas reiterated its position on Monday after its political chief Ismail Haniyeh met with officials from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – a smaller armed group – in Doha.

“The two delegations discussed the … indirect negotiations and efforts to end the war, stressing that any agreement must include a permanent ceasefire, complete withdrawal from the [Gaza] Strip, reconstruction, ending the siege and a serious [prsioners] exchange,” Hamas said in a statement.

The Palestinian group previously called for an “explicit” commitment from Israel to a lasting ceasefire.

Despite the lack of clarity in the Israeli position, Biden administration officials have repeatedly said that Hamas is the “only” hurdle to ending the war in Gaza.

On Monday, Blinken said he could not speculate on Hamas’s position or whether the group will agree to the plan. He also thanked Egypt for its role in the talks, saying that Egyptian officials were in communication with Hamas “as recently as a few hours ago”.

The US truce plan does not outline plans for the future of Gaza after the war, but Washington has said that it would not accept Hamas rule in the territory.

The Biden administration says it wants a “reformed” Palestinian Authority (PA) to eventually govern Gaza.

But the Israeli government has ruled out allowing the occupied West Bank-based PA to govern Gaza, with Netanyahu likening Fatah – the dominant faction in the PA – to Hamas.

The Biden administration, which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military aid, has often criticised the US ally for failing to formulate a long-term plan for Gaza beyond the war.

“It’s critical that we continue to work on plans for the day after, to make sure that when it comes to security in Gaza, when it comes to governance, when it comes to reconstruction, we have the plans in place,” Blinken said on Monday.

“That’s going to be a critical part of my conversations here in the region.”

Blinken was asked about an NBC News report saying that the US had discussed a unilateral ceasefire deal to release captives in Gaza with US citizenship; he said Washington thinks a broader truce agreement is the most effective way to release all captives.

The Egyptian presidency had said that el-Sisi discussed with Blinken efforts to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, and the two sides agreed to intensify efforts to reach a deal.

“The meeting also saw discussions of Egyptian efforts to bring humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, and to that end, the president stressed the need for international efforts to remove the hurdles to humanitarian assistance,” it said.

At least 37,124 people have been killed and 84,712 others wounded in Israel’s war on Gaza since October, according to Palestinian health officials.

Israel has imposed severe restrictions on supplies of food, water, medical supplies and fuel to Gaza, with the United Nations and aid agencies warning that the territory is on the verge of famine.

Israel launched the war after Hamas led an attack on southern Israel on October 7, killing at least 1,139 people, according to an Al Jazeera tally based on Israeli statistics, and seized around 250 others as hostages.

Around half of the captives were released in a weeklong truce deal in November. Around 120 captives remain in Gaza, including 43 whom Israel has declared dead.

Source: Al Jazeera