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Blinken heads back to Mideast to press hostage deal

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Washington on January 29, 2024
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Washington on January 29, 2024 - Copyright AFP/File Mandel NGAN
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Washington on January 29, 2024 - Copyright AFP/File Mandel NGAN
Shaun TANDON

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed Sunday on a new crisis tour of the Middle East as he seeks to push forward a proposal to halt the devastating conflict in return for the release of hostages.

Blinken’s fifth trip to the region since the October 7 Hamas attack inside Israel comes days after the United States carried out retaliatory strikes against Iranian-linked targets in Iraq and Syria, the latest escalation of the conflict that President Joe Biden had initially sought to avoid.

The trip also comes as the Biden administration gradually shows more frustration with Israel, with sanctions imposed Thursday on extremist settlers, although the United States has brushed aside international calls on Israel to end its military campaign. 

The proposal under discussion — drafted during talks a week ago in Paris involving the CIA chief and Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian officials — would pause fighting for an initial six weeks as Hamas frees hostages seized on October 7 in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, according to a Hamas source.

Blinken on his trip will visit Israel as well as Egypt and Qatar, the key go-between with Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip and maintains an office in Doha.

Blinken, speaking Monday after meeting in Washington with Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said there was “real hope” for success of the “good, strong proposal.”

Qatar has also voiced optimism, although Hamas has said that there is no agreement and there is also division in Israel with hawks opposing perceived concessions to Hamas.

Hundreds rallied Saturday night in Tel Aviv to demand swift action to free the hostages as well as early elections as they denounced the inability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government to win their freedom.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, acknowledged on Sunday the debate within Israel but said, in reference to the deal, that the “ball is in Hamas’s court at this time.” 

– Pressing for more aid –

Sullivan, speaking to “Face the Nation” on CBS, said Blinken would press Israel to allow more food, water, medicine and shelter in Gaza, which has been left in rubble by nearly four months of bombardment.

“This will be a top priority of his when he sees the Israeli government — that the needs of the Palestinian people are something that are going to be front and center in the US approach,” said Sullivan.

Nations and aid groups have warned of a risk of famine in Gaza with severe shortages of food and drinking water due to the Israeli campaign.

Blinken is expected to begin his trip on Monday in Saudi Arabia, which before the October 7 attack had been mulling steps to establish relations with Israel, a potentially historic step for the country that is the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites.

After talks during his last trip in January with the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Blinken said he still saw a “clear interest” in pursuing normalization.

But criticism against Israel has been rising in the Arab world over the offensive in Gaza which has killed 27,200 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel launched the campaign after Hamas fighters infiltrated Israel on October 7 and killed around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, in the deadliest attack in the country’s history. 

Militants also seized 250 hostages. A November truce that broke down over a week saw the release of 105 of the hostages. Israel says around 132 remain, including the bodies of at least 28 dead hostages.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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