In meeting with Abbas, Blinken laments deaths of ‘innocent Palestinian civilians’

Back in J’lem, secretary implies Israel imperiling 2-state solution, lists Israeli actions US will oppose, praises ‘vibrant’ civil society amid veiled criticism of judicial shakeup

Palestinian Authority President Mahoud Abbas (L) welcomes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 31, 2023. (Majdi Mohammed/Pool/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahoud Abbas (L) welcomes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 31, 2023. (Majdi Mohammed/Pool/AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his sorrow Tuesday for the  “innocent Palestinian civilians” killed over the past year in the West Bank, after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Washington’s top diplomat met Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on the penultimate stop of his Middle East tour aimed at curbing bloodshed and rising tensions, following meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, senior Israeli ministers, President Isaac Herzog and opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Israel says most of the over 30 Palestinians killed since the beginning of the year were participating in clashes with the Israel Defense Forces, though not all of them. A 60-year-old woman was shot dead during a military raid in Jenin last Thursday during which eight others were killed, most of them terror group members. Also last week, a father was shot dead by troops at a checkpoint in front of his son in an altercation that the army afterward said should not have ended in his death. More than 170 Palestinians were killed in 2022 — most of them while carrying out attacks on soldiers and civilians, though some were uninvolved civilians — making it the deadliest year since the United Nations began tracking in 2005.

“Palestinians and Israelis alike are experiencing growing insecurity, growing fear in their homes, in their communities and in their places of worship,” said Blinken.

The US envoy’s remarks alongside the Palestinian leader came a day after he met with Netanyahu, when he urged both sides to take “urgent steps” to calm tensions.

Blinken expressed “sorrow for the innocent Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives in escalating violence over the last year.” He also condemned Palestinians “who celebrate… acts of terrorism that take innocent lives,” in the wake of a deadly shooting Friday near a synagogue in Jerusalem — the deadliest terror attack against Israelis in over a decade.

Palestinians celebrate following a terror attack in Jerusalem, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 27, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

After meeting Palestinian residents in the West Bank, the US top diplomat said he saw a “shrinking horizon of hope” for Palestinians.

Abbas told Blinken that Israel is responsible for the recent uptick in violence — including the shooting in Jerusalem that killed seven people, carried out by a Palestinian from East Jerusalem — highlighting Israeli “policies that undermine a two-state solution.”

Abbas has yet to specifically condemn Friday’s attack.

The aging Palestinian leader also lamented what he said was a lack of effort in the international community to hold the Israeli government accountable, claiming it has enabled continued settlement expansion, land expropriation, settler violence, IDF raids into Palestinian towns, home demolitions and evictions.

Blinken, for his part, told Abbas in front of reporters that the US will continue to oppose such steps by Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Police at the scene of a terror attack in Jerusalem on January 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Abbas also raised the Palestinian effort to secure full-member status at the United Nations — an initiative that the US opposes and has indicated to PA officials it would block, according to officials in Washington and Ramallah. The US wields veto power in the Security Council, whose approval is needed for the Palestinians to receive elevated status at the UN.

“We have taken a number of decisions, which we have begun to implement in order to protect the interests of our people after having exhausted all other options,” Abbas said, ostensibly referring to his office’s announcement last week that it was severing security coordination with Israel.

The move was denounced by the US, but Abbas privately assured visiting CIA director Bill Burns earlier this week that the cooperation has only been partially cut and can be restored once tensions subside, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Abbas reiterated that he remains opposed to violence and terrorism and committed to a two-state solution.

‘Deep concern’

In a press conference at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel after returning from Ramallah, Blinken said that restoring calm between Israelis and Palestinians is “the immediate task,” but that Washington would keep working toward a two-state solution.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, January 31, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

He seemed to put the preponderance of the blame on Israel for threatening that aim.

“The United States will continue to oppose anything that puts that goal further from reach,” said Blinken in prepared remarks, “including but not limited to settlement expansion, legalization of illegal outposts, moves toward annexation of the West Bank, disruptions to the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, demolitions and evictions, and incitement and acquiescence to violence.”

“All sides must take steps to prevent further escalation of violence and restore calm,” he added.

“I heard a deep concern about the current trajectory,” the top US diplomat said about his meetings in Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank. “I reaffirmed to Israel and its people our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.”

Blinken said that he had asked several of his colleagues to remain on the ground after he leaves in order to support Israeli and Palestinian officials in implementing some of the proposals discussed during his trip aimed at deescalating tensions.

“It’s fundamentally up to them,” he said of Israelis and Palestinians. “They have to work together to find a path forward that both defuses the current cycle of violence and also leads to positive steps that each can take to build back some trust and confidence,” he said during the press conference.

He also announced an additional $50 million in US aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. The US is the agency’s largest sponsor and has already given hundreds of millions of dollars since US President Joe Biden entered office and reversed the policy of his predecessor, who cut aid to UNRWA entirely.

Turning to Iran, Blinken underscored the US commitment to working with Israel to counter the threat emanating from Tehran.

But as he did in his meetings with Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, he quickly pivoted to discuss Israel’s policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, saying the deepening ties between Iran and Moscow and the weaponry the Islamic Republic provides show “the importance of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs — humanitarian, economic and security.”

File: Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, October 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Roman Hrytsyna)

Israel has avoided sending weapons to Kyiv, though it has provided significant humanitarian aid. Cohen is heading to Ukraine in the near future, the most senior Israeli official to visit since the war started almost a year ago.

Blinken, who offered thinly veiled criticisms of the Netanyahu government’s deeply divisive judicial overhaul proposals during his visit, emphasized at the press conference that “Israel has a very robust civil society.”

“I continue to be inspired by the vibrancy with which Israel shares [democratic] values,” he said. “There’s clearly a very vibrant debate, a discussion that’s going on in Israel. These debates are a very healthy part of a vibrant democracy.”

Protesters against the proposed changes to the justice system at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 21, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Netanyahu coalition is pushing a series of dramatic reforms that would greatly increase government control over the judiciary.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, and private companies.

“Building a consensus on new proposals is the best way to not only make sure that they’re embraced so that they endure,” Blinken added regarding the proposed judicial shakeup. “All of this is of course for Israelis to work out.”

As he did alongside Netanyahu, Blinken again listed the democratic values that undergird the US-Israel relationship, including human rights, equal justice before the law and a robust civil society.

AFP contributed to this report. 

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