Blinken to head to Middle East amid Israeli-Palestinian tensions

Washington says US secretary of state will stress ‘upholding the historic status quo’ of the holy sites in Jerusalem.

Washington, DC – Top United States diplomat Antony Blinken will head to the Middle East in the coming days, the Department of State has announced, amid almost daily fatal Israeli raids against Palestinians and growing tensions around holy sites in Jerusalem.

The State Department said on Thursday that Blinken will discuss a “range of global and regional priorities” – including the war in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – during a three-day visit to Egypt, Israel and the occupied West Bank starting on Sunday.

It will be the US secretary of state’s first trip to Israel since the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office late last year. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also visited Israel and the occupied West Bank earlier this month.

“With both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Secretary will underscore the urgent need for the parties to take steps to deescalate tensions in order to put an end to the cycle of violence that has claimed too many innocent lives,” the State Department said in a statement on Thursday.

“He also will discuss the importance of upholding the historic status quo the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in words and in actions.”

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians spiked earlier this month after ultranationalist Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, in a move condemned by Palestinian and Arab leaders as a “provocation”.

The historic status quo maintains that neighbouring Jordan has custodianship over the Al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third holiest site.

Since coming to power, Netanyahu’s government has openly said that settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank is its top priority.

The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip were captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Since then, successive Israeli governments have illegally built settlements in the occupied territories that the Palestinian Authority seeks as a home for a future Palestinian state.

Although it verbally supports a two-state solution to the conflict, the administration of US President Joe Biden has been reluctant to criticise Israeli abuses against Palestinians, including settlement activity.

The Department of State said Blinken will discuss “the importance of a two-state solution” with top Israeli and Palestinian officials during his visit.

On Thursday, Israeli forces killed 10 Palestinians during a large-scale raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.

State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel described the Israeli attack, which left an elderly Palestinian woman dead, as a “counterterrorism operation”.

“We recognise the very real security challenges facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority and condemn terrorist groups planning and carrying out attacks against innocent civilians,” Patel told reporters. “We also regret the loss of innocent lives and injuries to civilians and are deeply concerned by the escalating cycle of violence in the West Bank.”

Despite the rightward tilt of the Israeli government, the Biden administration has stressed that its support for Israel will remain unconditional – a position reiterated by Washington on Thursday.

Israel – which leading human rights groups have accused of imposing a system of apartheid against Palestinians – receives at least $3.8bn in US military aid every year.

“In Israel, [Blinken] will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, and other senior leaders to discuss the enduring US support for Israel’s security, particularly against threats from Iran,” the Department of State said.

Blinken will start his trip in Egypt where he will meet President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other senior officials to “advance the US-Egypt strategic partnership and promote peace and security in the region,” the statement said.

Source: Al Jazeera