Antony Blinken's latest diplomatic push to halt Gaza war takes him to Egypt and Qatar

US Secretary of State is on fifth Middle East tour since conflict began in October

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi shakes hands with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Cairo. EPA
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to Egypt and Qatar on Tuesday to push for a truce and “an enduring end” to the Israel-Gaza war.

In Qatar, Mr Blinken met Emir Sheikh Tamim as well as Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

Mr Blinken, now on his fifth tour of the Middle East since the Israel-Gaza war began, is pushing allies to coalesce around the latest hostage proposal that was hammered out by US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Paris last week.

According to reports, the proposal seeks a truce of up to three months, an exchange of Palestinian detainees and hostages in Gaza, and efforts to allow a significant amount of aid into the besieged enclave.

“We continue to believe that an agreement is possible and indeed essential,” Mr Blinken told reporters at a joint press conference with the Qatari Prime Minister.

“And we will continue to work relentlessly to achieve it.”

Qatar's Sheikh Mohammed confirmed that his country had received a response from Hamas after sending the proposal last week and had forwarded it to Israel.

“The reply includes some comments but in general it is positive,” he said.

Mr Blinken said the US was reviewing Hamas's response and that he would take up the issue with Israeli leaders when he travelled to the country on Wednesday.

The Israeli Prime Minister's office confirmed receipt of the proposal and said that details were being "thoroughly evaluated by the officials involved in the negotiations".

Before arriving in Doha, the secretary travelled to Egypt, where he met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, whose government has been working with the US and Qatar to mediate in the war.

The Secretary of State flew to Cairo from Riyadh, where he held talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr Blinken will travel later to Qatar and Israel.

Mr El Sisi's office said in a statement that his talks with Mr Blinken focused on efforts to mediate a halt to the fighting in Gaza and a prisoner and hostage swap between Israel and Hamas.

They also discussed the importance of allowing sufficient aid to reach the enclave to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians there.

The Egyptian leader emphasised to Mr Blinken the “crucial” role played by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, the statement said.

Washington was one of several countries to freeze funds to UNRWA following allegations by Israel that some of the agency's employees took part in the attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7.

Egypt was among nations that strongly condemned the move.

Blinken in Egypt seeking progress in talks to halt Israel-Gaza war

Blinken in Egypt seeking progress in talks to halt Israel-Gaza war

Mr Blinken's trip has taken on increased urgency as Israeli forces in Gaza push farther south, towards the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border. More than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million population are believed to have taken shelter in the area.

A full-fledged Israeli offensive there is of particular concern to Egypt, which has for months warned against forcing Palestinians to flee Gaza and take refuge across the border in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt believes forcing Gazans to flee across the border would “liquidate” the Palestinian cause, breach Egypt’s national security and create another hurdle in future negotiations to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

The US and the EU have already said they are opposed to any action designed to force Gazans into Egypt.

Displaced Palestinians are living in makeshift tents metres away from the border fence. Volunteers on the Egyptian side have been providing Gazans with water from hoses and power from mobile generators placed by the fence.

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

War without end

Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas and says the war will not end until that goal is realised and hostages held by the militant group are released. The conflict was caused by a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, when about 1,200 people were killed and 240 were captured and taken back to Gaza.

The attack drew a devastating response from Israel, whose bombardment of the enclave has since killed almost 28,000 Palestinians, displaced the vast majority of Gaza's residents and razed large built-up areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said “a complete victory [in Gaza] will deal a fatal blow” to Hamas and other Iran-backed militant groups in the region.

Mr Netanyahu, who has faced division within his cabinet and public fury over the fate of the remaining hostages, said Israel “will not accept” demands made by Hamas for an exchange.

His Likud party quoted him as saying the terms of any deal “should be similar to the previous agreement”, when some hostages were exchanged for Palestinian detainees during a truce in November.

The pause, mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt, led to the release of more than 100 hostages in Gaza and hundreds of Palestinians held Israeli jails.

Hamas wants up to 5,000 Palestinians to be freed by Israel in exchange for the return of 132 hostages and remains the group is believed to hold in the enclave.

During his Middle East trip, Mr Blinken also aims to win backing for US plans for a postwar settlement in Gaza, ranging from the reconstruction plan for the devastated enclave to a broader settlement with the establishment of a Palestinian state – which Israel rules out for now – and the normalisation of relations between Arab countries and Israel.

“The president has emphasised [to Mr Blinken] … that serious steps towards a just and comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian issue must be taken to guarantee sustained stability in the region,” a statement from Mr El Sisi's office said.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 8:48 PM