BRUSSELS, Belgium — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return later this week to Israel and the West Bank as the US hopes to find a way to extend a temporary ceasefire in Gaza and get more of the hostages held there released, the State Department said Monday.
It will be his third trip to the region since Hamas launched a war with Israel on October 7, when thousands of terrorists from Gaza invaded southern Israeli communities, massacring 1,200 people, mostly civilians in their homes and at a music festival, and taking some 240 hostages.
Blinken will travel to the Middle East after attending Ukraine-focused meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday in Brussels and Skopje, North Macedonia, where foreign ministers from NATO and the Organization for Peace and Security in Europe are gathering.
The four-day truce agreement between Israel and Hamas had been due to expire early Tuesday but was extended for an additional two days, meaning the extension will presumably be expiring just as Blinken arrives.
Hamas has freed 50 Israeli women and children since Friday when the lull in fighting took effect, and also released 18 foreign nationals and one Israeli, a dual Russian citizen, as part of separate agreements. Israel released 150 Palestinian security prisoners, mostly women and underage males.
The government approved a list of 50 more female Palestinian security inmates set for potential release under the extension, which is expected to see the release of another 20 or so Israeli hostages over two more days.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the US hopes to see the pause extended further, but it is dependent on Hamas continuing to release hostages.
Meeting officials in Israel and the West Bank, Blinken will “discuss Israel’s right to defend itself consistent with international humanitarian law, as well as continued efforts to secure the release of remaining hostages, protect civilian life during Israel’s operations in Gaza, and accelerate humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.
He said Blinken also will discuss the principles for a post-conflict Gaza, as well as the need to establish an independent Palestinian state and prevent the conflict from widening.
In the West Bank, Blinken is expected to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Blinken and other US officials have said they believe the Palestinian Authority should play a significant role in governing post-conflict Gaza, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others in the government have rejected this, citing the PA’s financial support for terrorists and their families as well as its failure to explicitly condemn the Hamas onslaught and the atrocities committed on October 7.
From Israel and the West Bank, Blinken will travel to the United Arab Emirates for discussions with regional leaders who will be in Dubai to attend the COP28 climate summit.
Blinken has been engaged in furious diplomacy to try to prevent the conflict from spreading, expand the provision of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians in the territory, secure the release of hostages and arrange for foreigners and dual nationals to leave Gaza overland to Egypt.
On each of his prior two trips, Blinken traveled to Israel and Jordan. Between those two trips, he also made stops in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.
Blinken will arrive in Israel having just participated in an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe foreign ministers meeting in Skopje. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said he plans to attend the OSCE meeting, possibly setting the stage for a US-Russia confrontation there over Ukraine.
In Brussels, Blinken will attend a two-day NATO gathering, which will include the first foreign minister-level meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, a body created by alliance leaders at their last summit to improve cooperation and coordination and help prepare Kyiv for eventual membership.
“Allies will continue to support Ukraine’s self-defense until Russia stops its war of aggression,” said Jim O’Brien, the top US diplomat for Europe.
The NATO meeting will also address the tensions in the Western Balkans, where there are calls for NATO to increase its military presence in response to concerns that hostility between Serbia and Kosovo could escalate to outright conflict.
Violence between the two has broken out twice in recent months, and Western countries fear that Russia could try to foment trouble in the Balkans to avert attention from the war in Ukraine.
Last week, Albania’s prime minister urged NATO to further boost its military forces in Kosovo and secure the country’s borders with Serbia, warning that recent ethnic violence in Kosovo could potentially trigger a wider Balkan conflict. NATO has already strengthened its military presence in Kosovo — established after the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia — with about 1,000 additional troops and heavier weaponry, bringing its deployment there to about 4,500 troops.
Blinken will underscore US and NATO support for democracy and stability in the region, including a commitment to back all countries’ aspirations to join the European Union, O’Brien said.
Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence in 2008. Both countries want to join the European Union, which is mediating a dialogue between the former foes. Brussels has warned both that refusal to compromise jeopardizes their chances of joining the bloc.
The NATO ministers will also discuss plans for the alliance’s 75th anniversary summit to be held in Washington in July 2024.