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Blinken wraps up latest Middle East tour, says Gaza conflict has to end

 U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to members of the media before boarding his plane to return to Washington, following his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Cairo, Egypt, Jan 11, 2024. [Reuters]

U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday Israel working with Arab neighbors in the Middle East region to pave the way for a Palestinian state is the most effective way to isolate Iran.

Before leaving Cairo, where he held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Blinken said, “There’s a path that brings Israel’s needs and desires for integration in the region and genuine security with, as well, Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own.”

“That’s the single best way – this integration, security, a Palestinian state – to isolate and marginalize Iran and the kinds of actions it’s taking through its proxies,” Blinken said. “I think that vision is clear but for us to move on it, for it to really get started, the conflict in Gaza has to end. That’s critical.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has firmly rejected the two-state solution.

Cairo was the 10th and final stop on Blinken’s seven-day diplomatic mission, focused on containing the Gaza war, increasing humanitarian assistance, ensuring the protection of civilians, and securing the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas militants.

Earlier on Thursday, Blinken expressed appreciation for Egypt’s partnership in assisting the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

“Secretary Blinken and President El Sissi discussed ongoing efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages. The secretary reiterated U.S. commitment to ensuring Palestinians in Gaza are not forcibly displaced and to achieving regional peace that ensures Israel’s security and advances the establishment of a Palestinian state,” according to the State Department.

Egypt played a key role in mediating an earlier temporary cease-fire during which Hamas released more than 100 hostages and Israel released 240 Palestinian prisoners. Egypt is trying to revive hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

Retired General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, former commander of U.S. Central Command, expressed pessimism during a webinar on Wednesday.

"I think it's going to be very hard to get the remaining hostages back. ... They're the last thing Hamas has," he said. "I am not optimistic that we're going to get a lot of these hostages back."

Thursday’s talks in Cairo come a day after Blinken met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, and Abbas held subsequent talks with Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

The Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian leaders issued a joint statement calling for the international community to maintain pressure for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for the protection of Palestinian civilians. The leaders also highlighted the need for displaced Palestinians to be able to return to their homes in Gaza, and they rejected any attempt by Israel to reoccupy parts of the territory after the war.

Netanyahu said during televised remarks late Wednesday that Israel “has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.”

"Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law," he said.

Israel has agreed to allow a United Nations mission to evaluate the situation in war-ravaged northern Gaza for the safe return of displaced Palestinians.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said Wednesday that the mission is "contingent on security guarantees" from Israel.

The U.N. hopes to carry it out as soon as possible, as it is critical to a planned increase in humanitarian aid for northern Gaza.

Diplomats said Israel has invited U.N. Security Council members to visit the country later this month.

A U.N. special envoy is also set to conduct a mission to Israel and the West Bank at the end of January to gather information on sexual violence against hostages, reportedly committed by Hamas militants during the October 7 attacks in southern Israel, and the aftermath.

More than 85% of Palestinians have been displaced across the Gaza Strip since October 7, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Red Sea attacks

Blinken on Wednesday warned of "consequences" after Yemen-based Houthi rebels launched their largest yet aerial attack on the Red Sea.

"We had the biggest attack — UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] missiles — just yesterday," Blinken told reporters at Bahrain International Airport in Manama on Wednesday. "These attacks have been aided and abetted by Iran with technology, equipment, intelligence, information, and they are having a real-life impact on people."

More than 20 countries, including Bahrain, have pledged to preserve freedom of navigation and freedom of shipping in the Red Sea, Blinken said after holding talks with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

"If these attacks continue as they did yesterday, there will be consequences," Blinken added. He urged Iran to stop its assistance to Houthis but declined to elaborate on what specific consequences there would be.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a U.S.-drafted resolution condemning and demanding an end to Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

The Iran-backed Houthis said the attacks target ships affiliated with or bound for Israel, and that they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza health officials say more than 23,400 Palestinians, a large percentage of them women and children, have been killed in Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Israel began its military campaign to wipe out Hamas after Hamas fighters crossed into southern Israel in October. Israel said about 1,200 people were killed and about 240 captives taken in the terror attack.

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