Blinken headed to Mideast as US alarm over violence grows

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FILE Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaks at the State Department, Jan. 4, 2023, in Washington. Blinken will travel to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank this weekend in his first trip to the Middle East this year. It comes amid an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence, U.S. concerns over the direction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government and ongoing issues with Egypt's human rights record. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank this weekend, the State Department announced Thursday, as the U.S. expressed alarm about escalating violence after Israel’s single deadliest operation in the West Bank in two decades.

Blinken’s visit to Israel has been planned for weeks, but the Israeli raid on a West Bank refugee camp earlier Thursday — which the Palestinians say killed nine people, including a 61-year-old woman — will likely dominate his talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah. The Israeli military also fatally shot a 22-year-old Palestinian later in the day.

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The trip, the second by a senior U.S. national security official this month, had already been expected to be fraught with tension over disagreements between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly on the Palestinian conflict. Thursday's raid and the subsequent outcry are expected to make the visit even more difficult.

The top U.S. diplomat for the Mideast said the administration was urging both sides to de-escalate tensions in the wake of the raid and decried a Palestinian announcement that they would cut off all security cooperation with Israel as a result.

Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said U.S. officials had been in touch with top Israeli and Palestinian officials since the incident happened to stress the importance of calming the situation. She said the civilian casualties reported in Jenin were “quite regrettable.”

But, she also said the Palestinian announcement that it would suspend all security cooperation with Israel in the aftermath was a mistake, as was a Palestinian vow to bring the matter to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

“Obviously, we don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment,” Leaf told reporters on a conference call. “We want to see them move back in the other direction. We don’t think it makes sense" to go to an international forum now, she said. "They need to engage with each other.”

Blinken will hold talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on Sunday before going to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday to see Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the State Department said.

He will be the second top Biden official to visit Israel this year, following national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who made the trip just last week as U.S. concerns were growing over the violence as well as the direction of Netanyahu’s new right-wing government.

“With both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the secretary will underscore the urgent need for the parties to take steps to deescalate tensions in order to put an end to the cycle of violence that has claimed too many innocent lives,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

In another statement later Thursday, Price again emphasized the “urgent need" for Israelis and Palestinians to "prevent further loss of civilian life, and work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank.”

The trip was announced just hours after the Israeli raid on suspected terrorists at the refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin.

After the raid, Israel’s defense minister directed forces in the occupied West Bank and on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip to go on heightened alert as Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, threatened revenge.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority said it had halted security cooperation with Israel and would file complaints about the raid with the U.N. Security Council, International Criminal Court and other international bodies.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have soared since Israel launched the nightly raids in the West Bank last spring, following a spate of Palestinian attacks. The conflict has only intensified this month, as Netanyahu’s government came to office and pledged to take a hard line against the Palestinians.

In Jerusalem and Ramallah, Blinken will also underscore the importance the U.S. attaches to maintaining the status quo at the flashpoint Jerusalem holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, where clashes have frequently erupted, Price said.

The Biden administration has serious concerns over the composition of Netanyahu’s government that includes several far-right Israeli politicians who are opposed to some of the administration’s fundamental Mideast policies, including a two-state resolution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Like Sullivan, Blinken does not plan to meet with the most controversial of those Cabinet members, according to U.S. officials.

In Egypt, Blinken will raise human rights issues along with the unstable security situations in Libya and Sudan, the State Department said.

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