Blinken tells Abbas US backs ‘tangible steps’ for Palestinian state

GAZA: US top diplomat Antony Blinken told Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday that Washington supports “tangible steps” towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

Abbas is later set to discuss a “push for an immediate ceasefire” in talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba.

As the US secretary of state arrived under tight security in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, protesters held up signs that read “Stop the genocide”, “Free Palestine” and “Blinken out”.

Blinken reiterated Washington’s longstanding position that a Palestinian state must stand alongside Israel, “with both living in peace and security”, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Palestinian statehood was anticipated following the Oslo Accords of the 1990s but talks have been moribund for years.

The Israeli government has shown no interest in reviving negotiations and the Palestinian leadership remains split between the Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas, and Hamas which rules Gaza.

In talks with Abbas in the occupied West Bank, Blinken mentioned “increased volatility” in the territory, where hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in raids by the Israeli military or attacks by Jewish settlers in recent months.

As part of efforts to stabilise the territory, Blinken called on Israel to hand over revenues owed to the Palestinians in full.

Blinken “underscored the United States’ position that all Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel should be consistently conveyed to the Palestinian Authority in accordance with prior agreements,” Miller said.

Israel has for years withheld part of the funds, over issues including payments to Palestinian prisoners and more recently the Gaza war.

Global concern has flared over the spiralling humanitarian crisis, and Blinken — while voicing continued US political and military support for top regional ally Israel — has urged steps to reduce the surging civilian death toll.

Dire shortages brought by an Israeli siege mean the “daily toll on civilians in Gaza, particularly children, is far too high,” Blinken said on Tuesday at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Amid the latest round of US crisis diplomacy, the Gaza war raged on unabated. The Israeli army said it had killed dozens of “terrorists” and hit another 150 targets in Gaza’s central Maghazi and southern Khan Yunis areas.

Israeli troops claimed to have found 15 tunnel shafts as well as rocket launchers, missiles, drones and explosives in Al-Maghazi and destroyed machinery for producing the rockets that have been fired at Israel.

The Gaza health ministry confirmed on Wednesday that at least 23,357 people have been killed in Israel’s relentless military campaign in more than three months of war between Palestinian resistance group Hamas and Israel.

The toll includes 147 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, while 59,410 people have been wounded across the Palestinian territory since war erupted on October 7, 2023.

Thousands of Gazans are reported to be missing as Israel’s relentless bombardment has reduced much of the city to rubble

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel. Militants also took around 250 hostages, of whom Israel says 132 remain in Gaza including at least 25 believed to have been killed.

The Israeli army says 186 of its soldiers have been killed inside Gaza.

The United Nations estimates 1.9 million Gazans have been displaced inside the besieged territory that had already endured years of blockade and poverty before the war.

One of them, Hassan Kaskin 55, told AFP: “We have lost our money, our houses, our jobs. We are losing our youths as well.

“We’ve sacrificed our children for our homeland.”

Blinken’s fourth ME visit

Blinken is on his fourth tour of the Middle East since the outbreak of the war, with earlier stops in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Washington has floated a post-war scenario in which a reformed Palestinian Authority governs Gaza as well as towns and cities in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

Blinken argued Tuesday that “Israel must be a partner to Palestinian leaders who are willing to lead their people in living side by side in peace with Israel as neighbours”.

Amid a flare-up of violence in the West Bank, Blinken also said that “extremist settler violence carried out with impunity, settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions all make it harder, not easier, for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security”.

He added that “the Palestinian Authority also has a responsibility to reform itself, to improve its governance”.

Netanyahu, who leads what is widely seen as the most right-wing government in Israeli history, has shown no interest in reviving negotiations towards a Palestinian state.

A post-war plan outlined by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant envisions local “civil committees” governing Gaza after Israel has dismantled Hamas.

Blinken declined to say whether Netanyahu’s views had shifted in their discussions.

Hamas, a resistance movement, seized sole control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, ousting Abbas’s Fatah party, with which it had shared power.

The United States and European Union blacklist Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation.

Hamas’s Qatar-based chief Ismail Haniyeh said last week he was “open to the idea” of a single Palestinian administration in Gaza and the West Bank.

Blinken also called for “more food, more water, more medicine” for Gaza, where only limited humanitarian relief supplies have been arriving from Egypt.

Desperate Gazans on Tuesday climbed onto one truck carrying flour and canned goods and tossed the food to the crowd below, AFP footage showed.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said Tuesday that Israel is “ready and willing to facilitate as much humanitarian aid as the world will give”.

Since the Gaza war started, fears have grown of an escalating conflict between Israel and Iran-backed armed groups, especially Lebanon’s Hezbollah but also groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Defence Minister Gallant told Blinken on Tuesday that intensifying pressure on Iran was “critical” and could prevent a regional escalation.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have carried out numerous attacks on passing container ships in the Red Sea, and the United States has set up a multinational naval task force to protect the vital sea lane.

On Tuesday, the rebels “launched a complex” attack, US Central Command said, adding that US and British forces had shot down 18 drones and three missiles, with no casualties or damage reported.

Blinken will make a surprise visit Wednesday to Bahrain, home base of the US Fifth Fleet, a State Department official said, for talks with King Hamad on preventing a regional escalation of the war.

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