Blinken seeks progress on Gaza ceasefire-for-hostages deal in meetings in Egypt

6 February 2024, 16:34

Antony Blinken leaves a plane
Egypt US Blinken. Picture: PA

UN officials said on Tuesday that Israeli evacuation orders now cover two thirds of Gaza’s territory.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has pressed ahead with a diplomatic tour of the Middle East, meeting Egyptian leaders as part of his efforts to secure a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war in exchange for the release of hostages.

Mr Blinken’s visit also comes amid growing concerns in Egypt about Israel’s stated intentions to expand the combat in Gaza to areas on the Egyptian border that are crammed with displaced Palestinians.

Israel’s defence minister has said the country’s offensive will eventually reach the town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have sought refuge and live in increasingly miserable conditions.

UN humanitarian monitors said on Tuesday 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.

Mr Blinken, who was meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, has said repeatedly that Palestinians must not be forced out of Gaza.

During his latest trip, Mr Blinken is seeking progress on a ceasefire deal, on the potential normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and on preventing an escalation of regional fighting.

On all three fronts, Mr Blinken faces major challenges. Hamas and Israel are publicly at odds over key elements of a potential truce.

Palestinians look at a house destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah
Palestinians look at a house destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah (Hatem Ali/AP)

Israel has dismissed the United States’ calls for a path to a Palestinian state, and Iran’s militant allies in the region have shown little sign of being deterred by US strikes.

Egypt — along with Qatar, where Mr Blinken travelled to later on Tuesday — have been trying to mediate an agreement between Israel and Hamas that would lead to the release of more hostages in return for a pause in Israeli military operations.

The outlines of such a deal were worked out by intelligence chiefs from the US, Egypt, Qatar and Israel late last month and have been presented to Hamas, which has not yet formally responded.

US officials said Mr Blinken is hoping to get an update on Hamas’s response to the proposal in both Cairo and Doha. Mr Blinken will then travel to Israel to brief Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet on Wednesday about what he heard from the Arab leaders.

As on his previous four trips to the Middle East since the Gaza war began, Mr Blinken’s other main goal is to prevent the conflict from spreading, a task made exponentially more difficult by stepped-up attacks by Iran-backed militias in the region and increasingly severe US military responses in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Red Sea that have intensified since last week.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken
US secretary of state Antony Blinken was in Saudi Arabia before heading to Egypt (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Mr Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday evening, shortly after arriving in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Saudi officials have said the kingdom is still interested in normalising relations with Israel in a potentially historic deal, but only if there is a credible plan to create a Palestinian state.

Mr Blinken “underscored the importance of addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and preventing further spread of the conflict”, and he and the crown prince discussed “the importance of building a more integrated and prosperous region”, the US State Department said in a statement.

But any such grand bargain appears a long way off as the war still rages in Gaza.

On Tuesday Israeli officials welcomed a visit by Argentina’s new president Javier Milei, who pledged to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz embraced Mr Milei on the tarmac and welcomed him with a Spanish-language message posted on X.

Israel Argentina
Argentine President Javier Milei visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Tuesday (Leo Correa/AP)

The right-leaning Mr Milei portrays himself as a culture warrior shaking up the establishment and has adopted several positions shared by US conservatives, drawing comparisons with former president Donald Trump.

Mr Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in an act that was hailed by Israel but harshly criticised by the Palestinians.

The Palestinian death toll from nearly four months of war has reached 27,585, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory, with the bodies of 107 people brought to hospitals over the past day. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count but says most of the dead have been women and children.

The war has levelled vast swathes of the tiny enclave and pushed a quarter of residents to starvation.

Israel has vowed to continue the war until it crushes Hamas’s military and governing abilities and wins the return of the 100-plus hostages still held by the militant group.

Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in the attack on October 7 that ignited the war and abducted around 250 others.

More than 100 captives, mostly women and children, were released during a week-long ceasefire in November in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

The Israeli military said on Tuesday it was battling militants in areas across the Gaza Strip, including the southern city of Khan Younis, where it said troops killed dozens of militants over the past day.

An Israeli air strike in the city hit an apartment building, killing two parents and four of their five children, according to the children’s grandfather.

Mahmoud al-Khatib said his 41-year-old son, Tariq, was sleeping along with his family when an Israeli warplane bombed their apartment in the middle of the night. The Israeli military rarely comments on individual strikes but blames Hamas for civilians deaths, saying the militants embed in civilian areas.

UN humanitarian monitors said that Israel’s evacuation orders in the Gaza Strip now cover two thirds of the territory, or 95 square miles.

The affected area was home to 1.78 million Palestinians, or 77% of Gaza’s population, before Hamas’s cross-border raid on October 7 that ignited the war.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in its daily report that the newly displaced only have about 1.5-2 litres of water per day to drink, cook and wash.

Later on Tuesday it emerged that Israeli protesters have once again blocked humanitarian aid destined for Gaza despite the military declaring a closed zone around the main crossing.

The protesters say no more aid should enter Gaza until the more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas following its October 7 raid are released. The protesters, including some family members of hostages, say the aid should be used as leverage.

Last week, protesters blocked the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza for several days.

Aid groups say that even when the crossing is fully operational, the amount of aid entering is insufficient for the humanitarian catastrophe caused by nearly four months of war. UN officials say one in four Palestinians in Gaza are starving.

The Israeli military body responsible for civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories said more than 120 trucks were able to enter before protesters blocked the crossing.

By Press Association

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