Blinken Pushing for Cease-fire Progress in Egypt, Qatar Talks

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Tuesday with Egyptian and Qatari leaders amid a push for a new temporary cease-fire in Gaza and an increase in humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians.

In Cairo, Blinken was set for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi before traveling to Doha to meet with Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

The U.S., Egypt and Qatar helped craft the cease-fire proposal that is currently under consideration, which would include a pause in fighting lasting several weeks and the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

“The ball right now is in Hamas’ court,” a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters. The official said Egypt and Qatar have pushed Hamas to accept what the U.S. described as a “strong, compelling proposal,” but ultimately Hamas has to decide.

A previous temporary cease-fire, in late November, lasted for a week and brought the release of more than 100 hostages from Gaza and 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Blinken began his trip Monday in Saudi Arabia. He also has stops scheduled in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Blinken held talks with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, where the State Department said the officials discussed regional coordination to bring “an enduring end to the crisis in Gaza that provides lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

“They discussed the importance of building a more integrated and prosperous region and reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” the State Department said in a statement.

A U.S. official said sensitive negotiations are expected during Blinken’s meetings in the Middle East, where securing a humanitarian pause in Gaza is crucial for swiftly addressing key issues such as its reconstruction, Palestinian Authority reform, governance in Gaza, pursuing a two-state solution and facilitating normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas, which governs Gaza, after the militant group sent fighters rampaging into Israel in October, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli tallies. Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Britain, the European Union and others, also took about 240 people hostage.

Israel’s air and ground military operations in Gaza have killed more than 27,400 Palestinians and injured 66,000 others, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The ministry includes both civilians and militants in its count but says 70% of those killed were women and children.

UNRWA review

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday that former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna will lead an independent review of the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA. This announcement comes after Israel accused some UNRWA staff of taking part in the Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel by Hamas militants.

More than a dozen countries have suspended funding of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency.

“The United States is pushing for an immediate and serious investigation into the allegations on UNRWA,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said during a Monday briefing.

“From the U.S. perspective, we want to see concrete results for these approaches. And meanwhile, we’re going to continue to consult closely with other donors on how to continue to meet urgent humanitarian needs in Gaza,” Patel said.

He added that the U.S. is looking at other options for supporting civilians in Gaza through partners like the World Food Program, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and other nongovernmental organizations.

Dubbed a “pressure cooker of despair” by the United Nations, Rafah is overflowing with Palestinian refugees displaced due to Israel’s military operation against Hamas.

The diplomatic push for reaching agreement on a new cease-fire in Gaza has become more urgent with a surge of new attacks in the Middle East. Three U.S. service members were killed at an outpost in Jordan, and the U.S. responded with dozens of strikes in Iraq and Syria targeting Iran-backed militants. The U.S. and Britain have jointly struck Houthi missile sites in Yemen.

Early last month, Israel agreed to allow a United Nations mission to evaluate the situation in war-ravaged northern Gaza, aiming to facilitate the return of displaced Palestinians as soon as conditions permit.

The first step of the U.N. mission to assess road conditions and the situation in northern Gaza has taken place with Israel’s approval. However, intensified conflict and a resurgence of Hamas’s activities in northern Gaza have halted further progress, according to a U.S. official.

VOA State Department bureau chief Nike Ching contributed to this report. Some information for this story came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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