Blinken heads to Mideast to press for Gaza truce, address humanitarian crisis

Deal not ‘right around the corner,’ says US national security adviser, as secretary of state visits region for 5th time amid mounting tensions with Israel

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on February 4, 2024, en route to Saudi Arabia. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on February 4, 2024, en route to Saudi Arabia. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to the Middle East for another crisis tour on Monday in a bid to secure a new truce in the Israel-Hamas war, as southern Gaza saw no let-up in fighting.

On his fifth trip to the region since Hamas’s shock October 7 attack, which started the war, Blinken is expected to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Qatar.

He is expected to discuss a proposed truce thrashed out in a Paris meeting in January of top US, Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials.

The proposed truce would pause fighting for an initial six weeks as Hamas frees hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, according to a Hamas source. Hamas has said no agreement has yet been reached, while some Israeli officials have expressed opposition to concessions. Multiple reports have been published on the terms of the potential framework deal, which has not been officially confirmed.

Commenting on the negotiations, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas is not “right around the corner.”

“Ultimately, these kinds of negotiations unfold somewhat slowly until they unfold very quickly. And so it’s difficult to put a precise timetable on when something might come together or, frankly, if something might come together,” Sullivan told ABC’s “This Week.”

The diplomatic push has become more urgent with the surge in attacks across the region by Iran-backed groups in solidarity with Hamas, triggering counterattacks by the United States.

Illustrative: White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, December 4, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Ahead of the trip, Blinken stressed the need for “urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza,” after aid groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the devastating impact on the territory of nearly four months of war.

The war was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, during which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed in southern Israel and killed nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and took  253 hostages, while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,365 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry. The figure cannot be independently verified, and does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Gazans have faced dire humanitarian conditions, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on X that “there is very limited access to clean water and sanitation amid relentless bombardment.”

UNRWA itself is facing a major controversy after accusations that 12 staff members were involved in Hamas’s October 7 attack.

More than a dozen countries, led by the United States, suspended their funding to the agency after the claims surfaced.

On Sunday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that nations suspending funding to UNRWA were threatening the existence of an agency providing “vital aid to more than 1.1 million people in Gaza suffering from catastrophic hunger and the outbreak of diseases.”

The UN has announced an audit into the agency’s operations.

Before departing for the region, Blinken said that the humanitarian crisis would be one of his focuses.

“Urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and advancing stability in the Middle East are priorities we share with Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said he told Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan.

Illustrative: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Monday, January 8, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

The Gulf state had been mulling establishing formal relations with Israel before the war.

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

Blinken’s latest Middle East visit comes amid rising tensions after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told the Wall Street Journal that its key ally has not shown sufficient support.

“Instead of giving us his full backing, [US President Joe] Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel [to Gaza], which goes to Hamas,” he said in an article published Sunday.

His outburst followed Washington’s imposition of sanctions on four settlers amid rising violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit back at Ben Gvir, saying: “I don’t need help to know how to navigate our relations with the US and the international community, while standing firm on our national interests.”

Biden referred to Netanyahu in recent comments as a “bad fucking guy,” according to a Sunday report. The White House denied this.

As well as divisions within his cabinet, Netanyahu is also facing public fury over the fate of the remaining hostages. Hundreds of people rallied Saturday in Tel Aviv to demand early elections.

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