US promises Gaza aid and diplomatic boost after Blinken meets Abbas

US secretary of state promises Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington will replenish Iron Dome interceptors and discuss security needs

The US will rally support to rebuild Gaza without allowing Hamas to siphon off resources for military needs, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said from Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories on Tuesday.

Arriving four days after a ceasefire ended the 11-day conflict between Hamas in Gaza and Israel, Mr Blinken said the US would throw its weight behind a rally of diplomatic support for the Palestinian people and the administration was seeking $75 million in development and economic aid.

Washington, he said, would disburse $5.5 million in immediate disaster assistance for Gaza and $32 million to the UN Agency for Palestinian refugees.

Mr Blinken also met with Israeli officials on Tuesday, promising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would replenish Iron Dome interceptors and discuss Israel’s security needs.

Mr Blinken said the US would work to address the “grave humanitarian situation” in the coastal Gaza Strip but would also ensure that its militant Hamas rulers do not benefit from reconstruction assistance.

He also said the US would reopen the shuttered Jerusalem consulate for Palestinians closed by former President Donald Trump.

"The United States will be moving forward with the process of reopening our consulate in Jerusalem," Mr Blinken said after meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah. "That's an important way for our countries to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people."

Mr Trump’s move infuriated the Palestinians, who view occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Mr Blinken did not give a timeline for reopening the consulate.

He also said the US would try to secure 1.5 million Covid-19 doses for Palestinians. Only about 4 per cent of Palestinians are fully vaccinated while more than 50 per cent of Israelis are vaccinated.

Mr Blinken announced the steps after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. The US is trying to bolster Mr Abbas in his rivalry with Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group and on the international stage.

“As I told the president, I’m here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom opportunity and dignity,” he said.

The secretary of state is in the region to help shore up last week’s ceasefire that ended a devastating war 11-day war between Israel and Hamas that killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused widespread destruction in the impoverished coastal territory.

The truce that came into effect Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the underlying issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something Mr Blinken acknowledged after meeting with Mr Netanyahu.

“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. And that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild,” he said.

Mr Blinken will not be meeting with Hamas, which does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and which Israel and the US consider a terrorist organisation.

Mr Blinken addressed the larger conflict, saying “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.”

But the US official faces the same obstacles that have stifled a wider peace process for more than a decade, including a hawkish Israeli leadership, Palestinian divisions and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.

The Biden administration had initially hoped to avoid being drawn into the intractable conflict and focus on other foreign policy priorities before the violence broke out.

Mr Netanyahu, meanwhile, is fighting for his political life after a fourth inconclusive election in two years. He faces mounting criticism from Israelis who say he ended the offensive prematurely, without forcibly halting rocket attacks or dealing a heavier blow to Hamas.

Mr Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians in his remarks, in which he warned of a “very powerful” response if Hamas breaks the ceasefire.

Mr Netanyahu spoke of “building economic growth” in the occupied West Bank, but said there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognise Israel as a “Jewish state”.

The Palestinians have long objected to that language, saying it undermines the rights of Israel’s own Palestinian minority.

The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al Aqsa Mosque compound, a site revered by Jews and Muslims that has seen several outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years.

The protests were directed at Israel’s policing of the area during Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.

The truce remains tenuous since tension is still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.

"Any steps that either side takes that either risk sparking violence ... and ultimately undermine the prospect for returning to the pursuit of two states, we oppose," Mr Blinken told reporters at a press conference.

"That includes settlement activity, it includes demolitions, it includes evictions, it includes incitement to violence, it includes payment to terrorists."

Adding to the tension, an Israeli soldier and a civilian were stabbed and wounded in east Jerusalem on Monday before police shot and killed the assailant in what they described as a terrorist attack. Then, early Tuesday, a Palestinian man was shot and killed by undercover Israeli forces near Ramallah, according to the Wafa news agency.

Mr Blinken will also visit neighbouring Egypt and Jordan, which have acted as mediators in the conflict.

Egypt succeeded in brokering the Gaza truce after the Biden administration pressed Israel to wind down its offensive.

The administration had been roundly criticised for its perceived hands-off initial response to the deadly violence, including from Democratic allies in Congress who demanded it takes a tougher line on Israel.

Mr Biden repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks from Gaza.

The administration has defended its response by saying it engaged in intense, but quiet, high-level diplomacy to support a ceasefire.

Mr Blinken has said the time is not right for an immediate resumption in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The narrow coastal territory, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power.

Israel says the blockade is needed to keep Hamas from importing arms, while the Palestinians and human rights groups view it as a form of collective punishment.

Updated: May 26, 2021 02:25 AM

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