US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Sunday in the top American diplomat’s first trip to the West Bank since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.
Shortly after the meeting, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Blinken told Abbas that Palestinians in Gaza “must not be forcibly displaced.”
Miller also said the pair also discussed “the need to stop extremist violence against Palestinians” in the West Bank, presumably referring to the rapidly rising number of recent attacks — some deadly — committed by extremist settlers. According to Hebrew media reports, the Shin Bet security service has warned the government of its concerns of an eruption of violence in the West Bank if settler extremists are not reined in.
There was no official announcement of Blinken’s visit to Ramallah in advance, but the meeting was first reported by the The Times of Israel on Saturday.
Despite the secrecy and the US State Department refusing to confirm the trip until after Blinken had left the West Bank, protests erupted against his visit and US support for Israel as word of his arrival leaked.
Aside from pleasantries, neither man spoke as they greeted each other in front of cameras and the meeting ended without public statements. It was not immediately clear if the lack of words indicated the meeting had gone poorly.
According to remarks carried by the PA’s official Wafa news agency, Abbas decried what he called Israel’s “genocide” in the Gaza Strip amid its war on Hamas terrorists there.
“I have no words to describe the genocide and destruction suffered by our Palestinian people in Gaza at the hands of Israel’s war machine, with no regard for the principles of international law,” Abbas told Blinken.
He also said the PA would only be ready to shoulder full responsibility for the Gaza Strip in the framework of a “comprehensive political solution” that would include the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Abbas stressed that security and peace can only be achieved by ending the occupation of the territories of the “State of Palestine,” and by recognizing East Jerusalem as its capital.
Abbas reiterated that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which runs the PA, is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and its sole decision-maker, thereby disavowing rival party Hamas, the terror group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since evicting the PA in a bloody 2007 coup.
According to a senior American official traveling with him, Blinken said the US envisions the Palestinian Authority as “playing a central role” in any post-Hamas administration in Gaza. The official spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to detail private discussions.
Blinken and other US officials have been promoting a vague outline for a post-war Gaza that might include a combination of a revitalized Palestinian Authority — which has not been a factor in Gaza since it was ousted by Hamas in a violent coup — with international organizations and potentially a peacekeeping force.
US officials acknowledge these ideas have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
The meeting came days after Blinken told a congressional hearing that “at some point, what would make the most sense would be for an effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority to have governance and ultimately security responsibility for Gaza.”
The comments marked the first time the Biden administration publicly declared its desire for the PA to return to the Gaza Strip, after privately raising the idea with regional partners amid the war.
Ramallah, for its part, has asserted it has no interest in returning to Gaza unless the move is part of a diplomatic initiative that unites the enclave with the West Bank and revamps the peace process with Israel, an idea that would be supported by the Biden administration but have little backing in the current hardline Israeli government.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority said Sunday that it would not accept tax funds from Israel after ministers voted to transfer frozen tax funds to the PA but hold back monies designated for Gaza.
“We reiterate our rejection of the ongoing Israeli attempts to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, the latest of which is the deduction of funds allocated to the Strip,” said Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, according to the Ynet news site.
According to Hebrew media outlets, about $100 million is set to be withheld to offset PA transfers to Gaza, which are intended to pay for electricity and water in the Strip, medical treatment for Gazans in Israel and the West Bank, and salaries for Fatah officials in the Strip.
The US official said Blinken told Abbas that the US was pushing Israel to fully restore suspended tax remittance transfers to the Palestinian Authority. Those funds were partially unblocked last week, but the Palestinians want the whole amount.
Last week, Israel’s security cabinet voted to hand over the funds, ending a standoff between government ministers.
The move was backed by security chiefs and Washington, who viewed the transfer of the funds as necessary to shore up the beleaguered PA’s position in the West Bank as a more moderate force against extremists.
Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich had called for freezing the transfer of the customs duties collected by Israel, accusing the PA of supporting Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel.
But Defense Minister Yoav Gallant had objected to the position, saying it was in Israel’s interest to transfer the funds immediately, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported to also favor backing the move.
The monthly transfers in place make up nearly 65% of the Palestinian annual budget. Due to the PA’s lack of statehood status, Israel is responsible for collecting customs duties and other tax revenues on its behalf. Israel has made deductions in the past based on 2018 legislation that allows it to offset the PA’s payment of stipends to terrorists and their families. But it only partially upholds the policy, as officials are keenly aware that the PA is dangerously close to financial collapse.
The PA has avoided condemning the October 7 Hamas onslaught, in which terrorists from Gaza rampaged in southern Israel, brutally murdering 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping at least 240 others.
Instead, Ramallah has made vague pronouncements about protecting civilians on both sides, while harshly decrying Israel’s military offensive.
Blinken’s visit to Ramallah and the announcement from Shtayyeh came a day after the top US envoy visited Amman, where he met with his Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts, who are pushing for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war amid the mounting death toll in Gaza.
Blinken held firm to the US position that a ceasefire would harm Israel’s right and obligation to defend its citizens after the devastating onslaught by Hamas.
He said the US supports “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s operations to allow for the improved flow of aid and increased transit of foreign nationals out of Gaza and into Egypt. Israel has appeared to reject Blinken’s push for a humanitarian pause.
Blinken also met with Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, whose economically and politically ravaged country is home to the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah. The United States has grave concerns that Hezbollah, which has stepped up rocket and cross-border attacks on northern Israel, will take a more active role in the Israel-Hamas war.
Blinken thanked Mikati for his leadership “in preventing Lebanon from being pulled into a war that the Lebanese people do not want,” the US State Department said.
Blinken additionally met with the foreign minister of Qatar, whose country has emerged as the most influential interlocutor with Hamas. Qatar has been key to negotiating the limited release of hostages held by Hamas as well as persuading the terror group to allow foreign citizens to leave Gaza and cross into Egypt.
After departing Ramallah, Blinken was set to travel to Turkey for meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials, the State Department said. Turkey on Saturday followed Jordan’s lead and announced it had recalled its ambassador to Israel.
US officials believe that Netanyahu may soften his opposition if he can be convinced that it is in Israel’s strategic interests to ease the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The soaring death toll has sparked growing international anger, with tens of thousands from Washington to Berlin taking to the streets over the weekend to demand an immediate cease-fire.
The Arab foreign ministers with whom Blinken met in Amman – from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – issued the same demand. But Blinken said the US would not push for one.
Arab states are resisting American suggestions that they play a larger role in resolving the crisis, expressing outrage at the civilian toll of the Israeli military operations but believing Gaza to be a problem largely of Israel’s own making.
Israel launched its war against Hamas on October 7, after the terror group carried out a shock onslaught in southern Israel.
The vast majority of the more than 1,400 killed that day were civilians, many of them slaughtered in their homes. In response to the killings, Israel vowed to eradicate the terror group and destroy its infrastructure and has since hit thousands of Hamas targets inside the Strip with airstrikes and an ongoing ground operation.
Israel says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has accused Israel of killing more than 9,700 people, most of them civilians. The numbers cannot be verified by external sources, and Hamas is believed to be including its own members in the toll, as well as those killed by failed rocket launches from within the enclave.
Hundreds of thousands of Gazans from the Strip’s north have moved to the south, where airstrikes are less frequent, as Israel has warned of its intensifying offensive on the Gaza City area. The UN and international actors have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe and have called on Israel to greatly increase the aid allowed into the Strip via Egypt’s Rafah crossing.