Blinken meets Palestinian leader in West Bank and steps up Middle East diplomacy as Gaza war escalates

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken brought his frantic Middle East diplomacy push on the Israel-Hamas war to the occupied West Bank on Sunday, meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his latest attempt to ease civilian suffering Gaza Strip and begin to design a post-conflict scenario for the area.

Blinken traveled to Ramallah for his previously unannounced visit in an armored motorcade and amid tight security, just hours after Israeli warplanes attacked a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, killing at least 40 people and wounding dozens, health officials said. Despite the State Department’s secrecy and refusal to confirm the trip until Blinken had physically left the West Bank, protests against his visit and US support for Israel erupted when news of his arrival leaked.

Aside from pleasantries, neither man said a word as they greeted each other in front of the cameras, and the meeting ended without any public comment. It was not immediately clear whether the lack of words suggested the meeting had gone badly.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Blinken reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to providing life-saving humanitarian assistance and resuming essential services in Gaza and made clear that Palestinians should not be forcibly displaced.

Blinken and Abbas discussed efforts to restore calm and stability in the West Bank, including the need to stop extremist violence against Palestinians and hold those responsible accountable, Miller said, referring to violence committed by Israeli settlers.

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The meeting with Abbas, whose Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has not played a role in Gaza since Hamas’s violent takeover in 2007, came at the start of Blinken’s third day of an intensive Middle East tour – his second since a surprise Hamas attack began in the war on Israel on October 7th. Blinken visited Israel and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday before heading to Jordan on Saturday for meetings with senior Arab officials.

At each stop, Blinken has expressed clear U.S. support for Israel’s right to self-defense, but also stressed that it must abide by the laws of war, protect civilians and increase humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza. To achieve this and ease the flow of foreigners fleeing Gaza, he argues that Israel should institute rolling humanitarian pauses in its airstrikes and ground operations, something Netanyahu has so far flatly rejected.

U.S. officials believe Netanyahu could soften his opposition if he can be persuaded that it is in Israel’s strategic interest to ease the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The rapidly rising death toll sparked growing anger around the world. Tens of thousands took to the streets from Washington to Berlin to call for an immediate ceasefire over the weekend.

The Arab foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, whom Blinken met in Amman on Saturday, also expressed the same demands.

But Blinken said the US would not push for it.

“We now believe that a ceasefire would simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat which it did on October 7th” He said. Instead, he said temporary humanitarian pauses in fighting were critical to protecting civilians, receiving aid and getting foreigners out, “while enabling Israel to achieve its goal of defeating Hamas to reach”.

Arab officials said it was far too early to discuss one of Blinken’s top agenda items, Gaza’s postwar future. Ending the killing and restoring continuous humanitarian assistance are urgent and must be addressed first, they said.

“How can we even imagine what will happen next?” said Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi. “We need to get our priorities straight.”

Arab states are resisting American proposals to play a larger role in resolving the crisis. They express outrage at the civilian casualties of Israeli military operations, but believe that Gaza is largely a problem of Israel’s own making.

But U.S. officials believe Arab support, no matter how modest, will be crucial to efforts to ease the conflict worsening conditions in Gaza and laying the foundation for what would replace Hamas as the territory’s governing body if and when Israel succeeds in eradicating the group.

There are still hardly any ideas about future governance in the Gaza Strip. Blinken and other U.S. officials offer a vague outline that it could be a combination of a revived Palestinian Authority, international organizations and possibly a peacekeeping force. U.S. officials admit that these ideas have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

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