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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urges Israeli-Palestinian calm as violence escalates

Cairo – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel and the Palestinians on Monday to exercise restraint and de-escalate tensions amid escalating violence that has rattled the region.

Speaking in Cairo, just hours before a two-day visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank, Blinken said it was imperative that the two sides work to de-escalate tensions that have been building since last week in what he described as “new and terrifying”. Violence escalated” and provoked severe reactions from both of them.

“We will encourage the parties to take steps to calm things down,” Blinken told reporters at a joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. “There is no doubt that this is a very difficult moment.”

He reiterated US condemnations of militant attacks against Israelis and noted, “We generally deplore the loss of innocent civilian lives.”

The latest wave of violence erupted last week with an Israeli military raid on a militant stronghold in the West Bank city of Jenin last week that killed 10 people, most of them activists, and a Palestinian shooting attack in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Seven Israelis were killed.

On Monday, just before Blinken’s arrival, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Israeli forces had killed a Palestinian man in the volatile city of Hebron, bringing the number of Palestinian deaths in January to 35.

The violence follows months of Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank, which began after a wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the spring of 2022 killed 19 people.

But it escalated this month during the first weeks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which has promised to take a hard line against the Palestinians and step up settlement building.

Blinken’s visit follows visits to Israel by President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Willian Burns. But Blinken’s meetings will be the highest US engagement with Netanyahu since he regained power last month and the first since the violence escalated.

The visit, which was planned before the clashes erupted, was already expected to be fraught with tensions over disagreements between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government, which is made up of settlement supporters.

After the Jenin raid, the Palestinians said they would cancel security coordination with Israel and after intensifying attacks against Israelis, Israel said it would strengthen Jewish settlements in the West Bank, among other steps.

Israeli Army Radio reported late Sunday that the government also plans to approve a rogue outpost deep in the West Bank and speed up approval of other small settlements.

Israel also arrested 42 Palestinians, some of the relatives of the perpetrator in Jerusalem, in its investigation into the attack. Controversial National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said he ordered authorities to demolish illegally built Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem in retaliation for the attack.

Palestinians believe that Israeli retaliation, including the demolition of the homes of the attackers’ families, amounts to collective punishment and is illegal under international law.

The turmoil added another element to Blinken’s drawn-out diplomatic agenda in Jerusalem that was already set to include Russia’s war on Ukraine, tensions with Iran and crises in Lebanon and Syria. All of this has a major impact on the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Reducing tensions on these issues, or at least avoiding new ones, is central to Blinken’s mission despite Netanyahu’s opposition to two of Biden’s main priorities in the Middle East: reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But, with these two things stalled and little hope of any resumption of negotiations, the administration is just trying to preserve the notions of life support.

Copyright © 2023 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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