U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to the Middle East this week amid intense diplomatic efforts to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid into the war-ravaged Gaza Strip and increasing international pressure on Israel to reduce civilian casualties among Palestinians.
Blinken’s visit would come as Israel’s war with Hamas militants approaches its three-month mark.
Reuters cited a senior U.S. official and reported that Blinken will depart on Thursday for the Middle East, including a stop in Israel. Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, will also travel to Israel to work toward calming tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan told reporters Blinken will hold meetings with Turkish officials on Saturday, according to local media.
Senior U.S. officials’ upcoming meetings in the Middle East come at a time when the risk of a broader regional conflict is escalating, despite the collective efforts of Western and regional powers to confine the Israel-Hamas war to the Gaza Strip.
The State Department said the United States remains “incredibly concerned” about the risk of the conflict spreading into other fronts, after the killing Tuesday of senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut.
The Israeli army said it was on high alert for attacks by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. This follows a drone strike in Beirut that killed al-Arouri, who was closely associated with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. In a televised speech, Nasrallah said there would be a “response and punishment,” but he did not clearly declare that his forces would escalate attacks against Israel.
The U.S. has sent a “very direct message to Hezbollah” and other entities in the region that “now is not the time to think of escalating further” since October 7, according to the State Department. Israel launched its offensive in Gaza shortly after the October 7 attacks by Hamas militants.
“You’ve seen us take deterrence steps to deliver that message. You’ve seen us take diplomatic steps to deliver it. We’ll continue to deliver it,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has also voiced deep concern at any potential for escalation, while urging all parties to exercise restraint.
Earlier this week, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, condemned the Israeli strike that resulted in the death of al-Arouri, calling it a “crime” deliberately aimed at dragging Lebanon into a new phase of confrontations.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran, whose militant allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have also been carrying out longer-range attacks against Israel.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has warned that Gaza is becoming a public health disaster, and recent mass displacement across southern Gaza is fueling disease outbreaks.
More than 400,000 cases of infectious diseases have been reported since October 7, with some 180,000 people suffering from upper respiratory infections. There have also been more than 136,000 cases of diarrhea reported — half among children under the age of 5, according to OCHA.
The U.N. is collaborating with countries to facilitate humanitarian delivery, addressing the critical lack of hygiene and safe drinking water in Gaza.
In Washington, U.S. officials stated their opposition to forcibly removing Palestinians from Gaza. The U.S. is also working on a postwar road map for Palestinian territories.
“Gaza cannot, once again, serve as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel,” Miller told VOA on Wednesday. “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.”
Meanwhile, intense diplomatic efforts to retrieve the remaining hostages held in Gaza by Hamas militants continue. There are believed to be 129 people still held by Hamas or other militants in Gaza.
Last week, Egypt proposed a plan to end the current military conflict between Israel and Hamas militants, involving a cease-fire, a phased hostage release, and the formation of a Palestinian government of experts to administer the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Details of the plan were reportedly worked out with the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar and presented to Israel, Hamas, the United States and European governments. But the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, stated on Tuesday that the hostages will only be released on Hamas’ terms.
The State Department said it’s a “top priority” for the U.S. government to bring all hostages home but declined to comment publicly on the negotiations.