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Blinken Heads to Middle East As Risk of Broader Conflict Grows


FILE — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves before boarding a plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Nov. 27, 2023. An official says the secretary will board a plane again on late Thursday for a trip to the Middle East.
FILE — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves before boarding a plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Nov. 27, 2023. An official says the secretary will board a plane again on late Thursday for a trip to the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to the Middle East late Thursday amid intense diplomatic efforts to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, amid increasing international pressure on Israel to reduce civilian casualties among Palestinians.

Blinken's fourth visit to the Middle East since October 7 comes as Israel's war with Hamas militants approaches its three-month mark. Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and others.

Amid Fears of a Wider War, Blinken Returns to Middle East
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"The secretary will visit Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt for meetings with foreign counterparts and others," U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller announced during Thursday's briefing.

Blinken will discuss immediate measures to increase humanitarian assistance to Gaza, such as increasing the number of trucks allowed to enter Gaza to deliver food, water, medicine and commercial goods, according to the State Department. The chief U.S. diplomat also will pursue ongoing efforts to bring home the remaining hostages.

"You will see us pushing additional steps on what Gaza should look like at the end of the conflict," Miller told reporters.

US making post-war roadmap

Israel began its military campaign to wipe out Hamas after Hamas fighters crossed into southern Israel on October 7. Israel said about 1,200 people were killed and about 240 captives taken in the terror attack. Gaza health officials say at least 22,000 Palestinians — a large percentage of them women and children — have been confirmed killed in Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The United States has stated its opposition to forcibly removing Palestinians from Gaza. The U.S. also is working on a post-war road map for the Palestinian territories.

"Gaza cannot, once again, serve as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel," State Department spokesperson Miller told VOA on Wednesday. "What we ultimately want to see is Gaza and the West Bank reunited under Palestinian leadership," and "certainly there's no role for Hamas in that."

Israel plans more targeted strategy

On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant outlined the country's plans for the next stage of its operations in Gaza. The new approach involves a more targeted strategy in northern Gaza and a continued pursuit of Hamas leaders in the south.

Gallant said in a statement that after the war, Gaza would no longer be under Hamas control. While Israel retains operational freedom, there won't be any Israeli civilians present in the Gaza Strip.

Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, also will travel to Israel to work toward calming tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan told reporters Blinken will hold meetings with Turkish officials on Saturday, according to local media.

Senior U.S. officials' meetings in the Middle East come at a time when the risk of a broader regional conflict is escalating, despite the collective efforts of Western and regional powers to confine the Israel-Hamas war to the Gaza Strip.

The State Department said the United States remains "incredibly concerned" about the risk of the conflict spreading into other fronts, after the killing Tuesday of senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut.

The Israeli army said it was on high alert for attacks by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. This follows a drone strike in Beirut that killed al-Arouri, who was closely associated with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

In a televised speech, Nasrallah said there would be a "response and punishment," but he did not clearly declare that his forces would escalate attacks against Israel.

US sends 'direct message'

The U.S. has sent a "very direct message to Hezbollah" and other entities in the region that "now is not the time to think of escalating further," according to the State Department.

"You've seen us take deterrence steps to deliver that message. You've seen us take diplomatic steps to deliver it. We'll continue to deliver it," Miller, the State Department spokesperson, told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon also has voiced concern over the potential for escalation, while urging all parties to exercise restraint.

Earlier this week, Lebanon's caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, condemned the strike that resulted in the death of al-Arouri, calling it a crime deliberately aimed at dragging Lebanon into a new phase of confrontations.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran, whose militant allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen also have been carrying out longer-range attacks against Israel.

Humanitarian aid

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has warned that Gaza is becoming a public health disaster and that recent mass displacement across southern Gaza is fueling disease outbreaks.

More than 400,000 cases of infectious diseases have been reported since October 7, with about 180,000 people suffering from upper respiratory infections. There have also been more than 136,000 cases of diarrhea reported, half among children younger than 5, according to OCHA.

"Humanitarian workers need safe, sustained and unhindered access now to deliver urgently needed life-saving assistance," OCHA said.

Efforts to release hostages continue

Meanwhile, intense diplomatic efforts to retrieve the remaining hostages held in Gaza by Hamas militants continue. There are believed to be 129 people held by Hamas and other militants in Gaza.

Last week, Egypt proposed a plan to end the military conflict involving a cease-fire, a phased hostage release, and the formation of a Palestinian government of experts to administer the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Details of the plan were reportedly worked out with the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar and presented to Israel, Hamas, the United States and European governments. But the head of Hamas' political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, stated on Tuesday that the hostages will be released only on Hamas' terms.

The State Department said it's a "top priority" for the U.S. government to bring all hostages home but declined to comment publicly on the negotiations.

Some material for this report came from Reuters.