Even in friendly Albania, Antony Blinken is hounded by Israel-Gaza war

US Secretary of State is on a three-day trip to Europe

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers a speech in Tirana, Albania. AFP
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American flags line the sun-soaked streets of Tirana, Albania, and pictures of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken adorn billboards and buildings.

The US has a high level of popularity in the Muslim-majority country.

But even as Mr Blinken received a warm welcome from Prime Minister Edi Rama and an enthusiastic greeting by Albanians – some of whom waited on street corners to catch a glimpse – questions followed him over the Israel-Gaza war.

During his most recent visit to Israel earlier this month, Mr Blinken tried to secure a deal, proposed by the US, Egypt and Qatar, that would have led to Hamas releasing the remaining hostages it has been holding since the October 7 attack in exchange for an extended pause in fighting.

Despite Mr Blinken's efforts, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Hamas’s proposal as "delusional" and appeared to slam the door on any deal, saying the best way to get the hostages back was through military force.

But Mr Blinken told reporters there was “space” for mediators to work with and that the US sent a team led by CIA director William Burns to Cairo this week to hash out a new proposal.

He repeated that Washington was pushing for a deal that would lead to hostages being released for an “extended” pause in hostilities.

“We're now in the process with our counterparts from other countries in working on that and working very intensely on that,” Mr Blinken told The National and other outlets accompanying him.

But he sidestepped a question on whether a hostage deal could be negotiated before Israel starts its expected full-scale military operation in Rafah, saying that was a question for Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Blinken has made five trips to the Middle East since Israel launched its military campaign in Gaza after Hamas’s attack on October 7, in which the militant group killed more than 1,100 people and kidnapped about 240 others, according to Israeli authorities.

Protesters set up camp across the street from Antony Blinken's house – video

Protesters set up camp across the street from Antony Blinken's house

Protesters set up camp across the street from Antony Blinken's house

On each trip, Mr Blinken has reaffirmed US support for Israel but as the war has dragged on, he has tried to increase pressure on Mr Netanyahu to curb civilian deaths and allow more aid into the besieged enclave.

More than 28,600 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza so far, according to local health authorities.

Mr Blinken also addressed the recent deaths of two young Americans killed in the West Bank, Mohammad Ahmad Khdour and Tawfic Abdel Jabbar, both 17.

Mohammad was shot in the head while sitting in a car in a wooded area near the town of Biddu, Defence for Children International reported this week.

And Tawfic was shot in the chest and head by an off-duty Israeli police officer and a Jewish settler while on his way to a picnic with friends on January 19.

“With regard to American citizens who reportedly were killed, the first thing I say is, our deepest condolences to the families to your loved ones,” Mr Blinken said. He called on Israel to investigate the killings.

The death of Mohammad comes after the disappearance of two young American brothers in Gaza, who were caught in an Israeli raid on a house in which they were staying to the west of Khan Younis.

Latest from the Israel-Gaza war – in pictures

Hashem Alagha, 20, and Borak Alagha, 18, Palestinian Americans who were born and raised in a suburb of Chicago, were taken with other members of their family, including their father and uncle.

Family members of the Alaghas say the State Department has failed to update them on the whereabouts of the young men.

Their cousin Yasmeen Elagha told The National that the only interaction she has had with the US government is a confirmation of the receipt of her email notifying her that the brothers had been taken.

Mr Blinken would not say if he knew where the brothers were, citing privacy rules.

“We insist that people be treated fairly, that they be treated with due process and that they be treated humanely,” he said.

“And that's something that regardless of where an American citizen might be detained, we assist them in the system.”

Updated: February 16, 2024, 7:05 AM