CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Egypt on Wednesday as he pressed ahead with a diplomatic mission aimed at shoring up a cease-fire that ended an 11-day war between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas militant group.
Blinken landed in Cairo a day after holding intensive talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In Egypt, he met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and other top officials. Later he was to travel to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II.
Blinken has vowed to “rally international support” to rebuild the destruction in hard-hit Gaza while promising to make sure that no none of the aid reaches Hamas. He is instead trying to bolster Hamas’ rival, the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
Blinken described Egypt and Jordan as central players in trying to bring calm to the region. Both countries are key U.S. allies that have peace agreements with Israel and frequently serve as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Egypt played a critical role in helping to broker the cease-fire and Jordan has long been a voice for peace and stability in the region,” he told reporters late Tuesday.
Egypt maintains ties with Hamas, but also enforces a tight blockade on Gaza, along with Israel, with a shared goal of preventing the Islamic group from arming.
Blinken has set modest goals for the trip, his first official visit to the Middle East as secretary of state. The stop in Cairo, along with President Joe Biden’s phone talks with el-Sissi while the cease-fire was being negotiated last week, signal a closer relationship between the Biden administration and Egypt after a cooler beginning, when it expressed concernover the el-Sissi’s human rights record.
During talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday, he made clear that the U.S. has no immediate plans to pursue peace talks between the sides, though he expressed hope for creating a “better environment” that might lead to negotiations.
That could begin with the Gaza reconstruction effort. The 11-day war killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused heavy destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Preliminary estimates have put the damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, said U.S. commitment is critical for the region. Before the Gaza war, the Biden administration had kept its distance, preferring to focus on higher foreign policy priorities like China and Iran.
“The two parties of the conflict are unable, on their own, to sit on a negotiating table, and the gap between them has widened more than ever,” Aboul Gheit, a former Egyptian foreign minister, wrote in the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat. “In the absence of an effective role for the U.S., we should expect nothing but more cycles of violence and bloodshed of innocent people.”
One of the U.S. goals is to ensure that any assistance be kept out of the hands of Hamas, which opposes Israel’s right to exist and which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist group.
In Gaza, Hamas leader Yehiyeh Sinwar told journalists Wednesday that the group welcomed international reconstruction aid, as long as it did not come from Israel, and had no objections to international oversight.
“I emphasize our commitment in Hamas that we will not take a single penny earmarked for rebuilding or humanitarian issues,” he said.
Sinwar, who has close ties with the group’s armed wing, said Hamas receives ample military assistance from outside sources — led by Israel’s archenemy, Iran. “When I said we do not take money destined for aid, this is because we have comfortable sources of funds covering our activities,” he said.
He also lashed out at Blinken for trying to strengthen the Palestinian Authority at Hamas’ expense. “They are trying to add more fuel to the fire of Palestinian division,” Sinwar said.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was in Israel on Wednesday to build on the momentum of Blinken’s visit.
Echoing Blinken’s message, Raab said the U.K. supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire and would seek to prevent aid money from reaching Hamas. But he also expressed hope that cease-fire efforts would lead to a broader regional peace effort.
“We want to support Israel but we also want the Palestinians to find a track towards an enduring peace,” he said.
Blinken said the U.S. is trying to bolster the rival government of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Abbas’ Palestinian Authority now administers autonomous areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Abbas has been largely sidelined by recent events, is deeply unpopular at home and has little influence in Gaza.
Abbas hopes to establish an independent state in all of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
In a gesture to the Palestinians, Blinken on Tuesday announced plans to reopen a diplomatic office in Jerusalem that oversees outreach to the Palestinians.
The Jerusalem consulate had been downgraded by President Donald Trump when he moved the U.S. Embassy to the holy city in 2018. The move infuriated the Palestinians, who claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital and prompted them to sever most ties with the U.S.
Blinken also announced nearly $40 million in additional aid to the Palestinians. In all, the Biden administration has pledged some $360 million to the Palestinians, restoring badly needed aid that the Trump administration had cut off.
The truce that ended the Gaza war on Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the deeper issues plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those challenges include a hawkish Israeli leadership that seems unwilling to make major concessions, Palestinian divisions, years of mistrust and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.
The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound 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 the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
The truce remains tenuous since tensions are still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.
On Wednesday, an Israeli court heard arguments from a Palestinian family trying to block their eviction in Silwan, another east Jerusalem neighborhood targeted by settler groups.
“The settlers want to take my house, to steal my house with their fake papers,” said Kaet Abdel Fath El Rajabi, who said his family has lived in the building for 60 years. Several dozen protesters stood outside the courthouse in support of the family.
In his remarks after his meeting with Blinken on Tuesday, Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians, warning of a “very powerful” response if Hamas breaks the cease-fire while expressing support for economic development in the West Bank.
Blinken repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself. But he also called on leaders of all sides to chart a “better course” in hopes of laying the groundwork for peace talks aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Federman reported from Jerusalem.