Gaza — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel on Tuesday, beginning a tour of the Middle East aimed at solidifying the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. 253 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed in the 11-day conflict that was halted early on Friday by a tenuous truce agreement.
Blinken, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the region since President Joe Biden took office, is expected to focus also on reconstruction in the Gaza Strip, where an estimated 77,000by the Israeli airstrikes.
Gaza’s infrastructure was also damaged in the fighting, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without fresh running water.
Blinken was to meet separately on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian Authority controls the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but not Gaza, which is run by the militant group Hamas. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization and does not deal directly with it.
The recent conflictin the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem, between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters. Tension there was high over the threatened eviction of more than a dozen Palestinian families from their homes by Jewish settlers, as well as over Israel’s policing tactics around the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, during Ramadan.
Hamas has warned that if the Sheikh Jarrah evictions go ahead, or if Israel deploys security forces inside al-Aqsa again, the cease-fire will fall apart and violence will resume.
The legal battle over the east Jerusalem evictions has been playing out for years, but was put on hold just before the conflict erupted. It is set to resume in the coming weeks.
There have been sporadic clashes outside the al-Aqsa mosque between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters since the cease-fire began, and two Israelis were stabbed by a Palestinian in east Jerusalem on Monday before the assailant was killed by police, but the tenuous truce continued to hold on Tuesday as Blinken visited the region.