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Israel-Palestine: Blinken pledges US support to rebuild Gaza after Netanyahu talks

US secretary of state made remarks after meeting with the Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem as part of a regional tour
Blinken, left, said he and Netanyahu, right, discussed 'other steps' that need to be taken by leaders on both sides to set 'a better course' for Israelis and Palestinians (AFP)
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Washington

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on a Middle East tour on Tuesday that Washington would rally support to rebuild the besieged Gaza Strip as part of efforts to bolster a ceasefire between the Palestinian Hamas movement and Israel.

Blinken began his regional visit in Jerusalem, where he held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the fragile ceasefire continued to hold since Thursday night.

However, Blinken again made clear, as previously announced by US President Joe Biden, that the US intended to ensure that Hamas, which governs the blockaded Palestinian enclave, and which Washington regards as a terrorist organisation, did not benefit from the humanitarian aid.

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"We know that to prevent a return to violence we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges," Blinken said.

"And that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild."

The United States, he said, would work to rally international support around that effort and make its own "significant contributions," to be announced later in the day.

Palestinian shot dead

Blinken, who said he hoped to rebuild relationships with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority (PA), was due to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank later in the day.

Israeli forces killed a Palestinian in the West Bank city of al-Bireh at dawn on Tuesday, according to medical sources.

The undercover forces entered the Umm Al Sharayit neighbourhood, where they shot and killed a young man identified as Ahmad Jamil Fahd, Wafa news agency reported.

Tensions remain high after Israeli police launched an operation on Monday involving the mass arrests of Palestinian citizens of Israel. This came just a day after Israeli police escorted Jewish settlers to enter al-Aqsa Mosque complex.

Blinken said he and Netanyahu discussed "other steps" that need to be taken by leaders on both sides to set "a better course" for Israelis and Palestinians.

"As President Biden said, we believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and democracy, to be treated with dignity," Blinken said.

Abbas talks

Earlier on Tuesday, Blinken was welcomed at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. According to the White House, later he will hold talks with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

He will then head to the occupied West Bank and meet with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

Blinken is also travelling to Jordan and Egypt, which would conclude the Biden administration's highest-level in-person meeting on the most recent escalation of violence, which began on 10 May and lasted for 11 days.

"The United States has engaged in intensive diplomacy to bring an end to the hostilities in Gaza," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on Monday.

"Secretary Blinken is travelling to the region to discuss essential follow-up efforts to consolidate the ceasefire and reduce risks of further conflict over the coming months."

The ceasefire, brokered by Egypt and coordinated with the US, began on Friday after 11 days of the worst fighting between Palestinian armed groups and Israel in years.

Israeli air strikes killed at least 248 people, including 66 children in Gaza, and wounded 1,948 others, the local health ministry has said.

Twenty-eight people were killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank and one in Jerusalem over the two weeks of violence that began in early May, when Israeli security forces violently stormed al-Aqsa Mosque on Islam’s holy night of Laylat al-Qadr, causing global outrage.

Rockets fired from Gaza following the raids claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child, a teenager and an Israeli soldier, with one Indian and two Thai nationals among those killed, Israeli authorities said.

Biden defends US 'quiet diplomacy'

Prior to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, protests over the forced expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem were met with a crackdown by Israeli forces.

While the administration has been heavily criticised by Palestinians for its handling of the crisis, Biden on Monday defended Washington's "quiet, intensive diplomacy to bring about a ceasefire".

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"During his trip, Secretary Blinken will meet with Israeli leaders about our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. He will continue our administration's efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders, after years of neglect," Biden said in a statement on Monday.

Blinken's visit comes as Egyptian mediators have been shuttling between Israel and the Gaza Strip, which is governed by Hamas, in attempts to sustain the ceasefire. The mediators have also met with Abbas in the occupied West Bank.

It also comes after the United Nations Security Council on Saturday called for “full adherence to the ceasefire”, the council's first statement on the situation since the violence began, after the US had blocked proposals calling for a ceasefire four times.

Strengthening the PA at Hamas's expense

Blinken will be meeting with a Palestinian leadership that had been outmanoeuvred over the last two weeks by Hamas, a leadership that is also increasingly despised by Palestinians.

The PA - which nominally governs Palestinians in the occupied West Bank - maintains close security ties with Israel and is invested in a two-state solution, although there have not been any substantive peace talks in the last decade.

Last month, Abbas called off the first elections in 15 years, citing the voting rights of Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem.

Some Palestinians have come to see the PA as being a part of an entrenched system of Israeli control, while Hamas has portrayed itself as the defender of Jerusalem striking a blow against the far more powerful Israel.

"The option is either to engage with Hamas or an incredibly unrepresentative and defunct governing - somewhat of a governing - authority that holds absolutely no legitimacy," Tahani Mustafa, an analyst at the Crisis Group, told the Associated Press.

When speaking last week about the ceasefire in Gaza, Biden said that he would work to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and support for reconstruction in Gaza, but like Blinken said that Washington would not work with Hamas.

"We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, the authority, in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock his military arsenal," Biden said.

A senior State Department official reiterated that point on Monday when they said that the US planned to use aid to reintegrate the PA in Gaza at the expense of Hamas.

"We're in touch with the Gulf, and again, we are - and other donors - and we're trying to structure things, again, in a way that diminishes Hamas’s abilities, strengthens the people of Gaza, begins a process of hopefully reintroducing and reintegrating the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, and is in partnership with the United Nations," the official said at a press briefing.