Blinken meets with Arab leaders, aiming to curb spread of Israeli-Hamas war

U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani at Lusail Palace in Lusail, Jan 7, 2024. [AP Photo]

U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Jordan and Qatar on Sunday to meet with Arab leaders in a new push to tamp down fears that the Israeli war with Hamas could spiral out of control across the Middle East.

In meetings with Jordan King Abdullah II and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the top U.S. diplomat spoke of the need for Israel to curb civilian casualties during the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza and significantly increase the amount of humanitarian aid reaching famished Palestinians in Gaza.

But the U.S. has continued to support Israel in refusing Arab demands for a cease-fire to halt the fighting in the three-month war. The Jewish state has vowed to continue the war until it believes the threat of future Hamas attacks has been eradicated and the militant group no longer controls Gaza, the narrow territory along the Mediterranean Sea.

Blinken’s trip will also take him to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt before he returns to Washington, his fourth to the region since the war began.

The royal court said King Abdullah "warned of the catastrophic repercussions" of Israel’s war in Gaza against Hamas while calling on the U.S. to press for an immediate cease-fire. Israel and the U.S. believe that a cease-fire would only serve Hamas to be able to regroup in its fight against Israeli forces.

While in Amman, Blinken also visited a World Food Program warehouse where trucks are loaded with aid for famished Palestinians in Gaza.

"The efforts right here to collect and distribute food to people in need are absolutely essential," Blinken said. "The United States has worked from day one to open access routes into Gaza."

"We continue to work on that every single day, not only to open them but to multiply them, to maximize them and to try to get more assistance, more effectively," he said. "We're determined to do everything we possibly can to ameliorate the situation for the men, women and children in Gaza."

Turkey is prepared to use its influence with critical countries in the Middle East to deescalate and prevent the Gaza conflict from spreading, Blinken told reporters late Saturday, after he held talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strong critic of Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Blinken held meetings earlier in the day with Erdogan in Istanbul, and then in Crete with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He embarked on a Middle East diplomacy tour this week seeking to calm the situation in Gaza and soothe regional frictions.

In a separate meeting with Blinken, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan called for "an immediate cease-fire" in Gaza and for the uninterrupted flow of humanitarian aid. Fidan also advocated for the immediate start of negotiations for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution, according to Turkish diplomatic sources.

The United States has urged a lasting peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. This involves achieving Palestinian political rights — notably the establishment of a Palestinian state with security assurances for Israel.

In Crete, Blinken thanked Mitsotakis for the country’s continued support for the delivery of life-saving humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Blinken expressed appreciation for Greece's commitment to the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. This is particularly crucial, as Yemeni Houthis have been attacking vessels in the sea in solidarity with Hamas.

On Saturday, Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group launched dozens of rockets into northern Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon.

"One of the areas of real concern is the border between Israel and Lebanon, and we want to do everything possible to make sure that we don't see escalation there," Blinken said Saturday.

He told reporters that Israel is "clearly not interested" in an escalation and emphasized, "It's not in Lebanon's interest to see any escalation."

Blinken’s trip comes at a time when the risk of a broader regional conflict is surging, despite collective efforts of Western and regional powers to confine the Israel-Hamas war to the Gaza Strip.

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 more than 22,000 Palestinians, a large percentage of them women and children, have been 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. is also working on a postwar road map for the Palestinian territories.

"Gaza cannot, once again, serve as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel,” Miller told VOA last week.

"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."

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 would retain operational freedom, there would not be any Israeli civilians present in the Gaza Strip.