Blinken urges Israel-Palestinian calm as violence soars
CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged Israel and the Palestinians to exercise restraint and ease tensions amid a surge in violence that is stirring up the region.
Speaking in Cairo just hours before a two-day visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank, Blinken said it was imperative for both sides to work to de-escalate tensions that have been building since last week in what he called a “new and terrible upsurge in violence” and provoked violent reactions from everyone.
“We will encourage the parties to take steps to calm things down,” Blinken told reporters at a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. “There is no question that this is a very difficult moment.”
He reiterated US condemnation of militant attacks on Israelis, noting that “all in all, we regret the loss of innocent civilians.”
The latest wave of violence erupted last week with an Israeli military raid on a militant stronghold in the West Bank city of Jenin, killing 10 people, most of them militants, and a Palestinian shooting attack on a Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem , which killed seven Israelis.
And on Monday, just before Blinken’s arrival, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Israeli forces had killed a Palestinian man in the hotspot city of Hebron, bringing the number of Palestinians killed in January to 35.
The violence comes after months of Israeli arrests in the West Bank, which began after a spate of Palestinian attacks on Israelis in spring 2022 that killed 19 people.
But it has picked up this month in the first few weeks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which has vowed to take a tough stance on the Palestinians and boost settlement construction.
Blinken’s trip follows visits to Israel by President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, and CIA Director Willian Burns. But Blinken’s meetings will be the US’s highest-level meeting with Netanyahu since he regained power last month, and the first since the surge in violence.
The visit, planned ahead of the flare-up, was already expected to be fraught with tension over differences between the Biden administration and the pro-settlement Netanyahu government.
After the Jenin raid, the Palestinians said they would end security coordination with Israel, and after attacks on Israelis intensified, Israel said it would strengthen Jewish settlements in the West Bank, among other things.
Israeli army radio reported late Sunday that the government is also ready to approve a breakaway outpost deep in the West Bank’s interior and to expedite approval for other small settlements of the same type.
Israel also arrested 42 Palestinians, some relatives of the Jerusalem attacker, as part of its investigation into the attack. And hotheaded National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said he had ordered authorities to demolish illegally built Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem in response to the attack.
The Palestinians believe that Israeli retaliation, including the demolition of the homes of the attackers’ families, amounts to collective punishment and is illegal under international law.
The turmoil has added another item to Blinken’s protracted diplomatic agenda in Jerusalem, which should already include Russia’s war against Ukraine, tensions with Iran, and the crises in Lebanon and Syria; All of this weighs heavily in US-Israel relations.
Mitigating these problems, or at least averting new ones, is central to Blinken’s mission, despite Netanyahu’s opposition to two of Biden’s top priorities in the Middle East: relaunching the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But with those two issues stalled and little hope of negotiations resuming, the government is trying to keep only life support concepts in place.