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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane ahead of his Middle East trip Alamy Stock Photo
Gaza

Blinken arrives in Saudi Arabia for another Middle East tour a bid to secure Israel-Hamas truce

Blinken’s trip comes as Israel has in recent days pressed further south towards the southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 5th 2024, 5:00 PM

US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken has landed in Saudi Arabia to kick off his latest regional crisis trip aimed at securing a new truce in the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

The top US diplomat’s plane touched down in Riyadh, according to an AFP journalist travelling with him.

This is Blinken’s his fifth trip to the region since Hamas’s 7 October attack that triggered the fighting. He is also due to visit Israel, Egypt and Qatar.

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 nearly four months of war have had on the besieged Gaza Strip.

“The situation is indescribable,” said Said Hamouda, a Palestinian who fled his home to the southern Gaza city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.

With Blinken arriving in the region, 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 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.

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 any perceived concessions.

At least 27,365 people have been killed in Gaza during Israel’s offensive, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Strikes on Rafah

Blinken’s trip comes as Israel has in recent days pressed further south towards the southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt, warning that its ground forces could advance on Rafah as part of the campaign to eradicate Hamas.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “a complete victory will deal a fatal blow” to Hamas but also to other Iran-backed militant groups across the region.

Rafah now hosts more than half of Gaza’s population, displaced due to Israel’s assault.

This morning, sources told AFP they could hear artillery shelling in the areas of eastern Rafah and Khan Younis, southern Gaza’s main city.

Israel says Khan Younis is where militants prepared for the 7 October attack, and that high-ranking Hamas officials are hiding there.

At least 128 people, mostly women and children, were killed in Israeli strikes overnight in the besieged territory, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Humanitarian crisis

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.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has said Ireland is not planning to suspend funding to the Agency following the allegations. 

Spain has said it would give an additional €3.5 million “so that UNRWA can maintain its activities in the short term”, said Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares.

UN chief Antonio Guterres announced the creation of an independent panel to assess UNRWA and “whether the agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality”, a UN statement said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged donors to maintain support for the agency “to allow it to provide its vital humanitarian services… particularly in light of the tragic humanitarian situation in Gaza”, a royal statement said.

In a meeting with Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Amman, the two leaders urged the protection of civilians in Gaza and called to intensify efforts towards a lasting ceasefire and a “political solution” to the conflict, the statement said.

French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, on his first visit to the region since taking office, said peace will only be achieved through diplomacy, urging the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks “without delay”.

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.

Blinken’s latest Middle East visit comes as Israel’s 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 yesterday.

His outburst came after Washington imposed sanctions on four settlers amid rising violence against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit back, 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.”

Includes reporting by © AFP 2024