Blinken heads to Middle East a sixth time in Gaza diplomacy push

By Thomson Reuters Mar 20, 2024 | 12:02 AM

By Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returns to the Middle East on Wednesday for his sixth visit since the start of Israel’s war with Hamas to push for a deal to secure a temporary pause in fighting and the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Blinken will meet Saudi leaders in Jeddah and Egyptian leaders in Cairo to discuss talks brokered by Egypt and Qatar on an agreement as well as efforts to get more aid into Gaza, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Talks on a ceasefire are resuming this week in Qatar, but weeks of tough negotiations have yet to forge an agreement between Israel and Hamas that Washington hopes will help alleviate the humanitarian crisis gripping Gaza.

Blinken said he would also pursue conversations on arrangements for governance, security and redevelopment of post-conflict Gaza.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work since January, particularly with our Arab partners, and we’ll be pursuing those conversations, as well as discussing what is the right architecture for lasting regional peace,” Blinken said at a news conference during at a previous stop in Manila.

The war was triggered when Hamas fighters crossed into Israel on a rampage on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Nearly 32,000 people have been confirmed killed in Israel’s retaliatory onslaught, according to Palestinian health officials in Hamas-run Gaza, with thousands more feared lost under the rubble.

Blinken is not scheduled to visit Israel on this trip, despite multiple visits to the U.S. ally on his previous regional swings since Oct. 7.

Tensions have heightened between U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Tuesday rebuffed Biden’s plea to call off a planned ground assault in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Howard Goller)