Blinken seeks Palestinian governance reform for post-war Gaza as deadly Israeli strikes continue

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he has secured commitments from multiple countries in the region to assist with rebuilding and governing Gaza after Israel’s war against Hamas, and that wider Israeli-Arab normalization is still possible, but only if there is “a pathway to a Palestinian state”

January 10, 2024 05:09 pm | Updated 05:09 pm IST - TEL AVIV, Israel

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on January 10, 2024.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on January 10, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on January 10 to seek governance reforms as part of U.S. efforts to rally the region behind post-war plans for Gaza that also include concrete steps toward a Palestinian state.

Mr. Blinken says he has secured commitments from multiple countries in the region to assist with rebuilding and governing Gaza after Israel's war against Hamas, and that wider Israeli-Arab normalization is still possible, but only if there is "a pathway to a Palestinian state."

The approach faces serious obstacles. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the autocratic, Western-backed Palestinian leadership, whose forces were driven from Gaza when Hamas took over in 2007, lacks legitimacy in the view of many Palestinians.

The war in Gaza is still raging with no end in sight, fuelling a humanitarian catastrophe in the tiny coastal enclave. The fighting has also stoked escalating violence between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants that has raised fears of a wider conflict.

On his fourth visit to the region since the war began three months ago, Mr. Blinken has met in recent days with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkiye. He says they are open to contributing to post-war plans in return for progress on creating a Palestinian state.

Also Read | Blinken urges Israel to engage with region on postwar plans that include path to Palestinian state

The Saudi Ambassador to the U.K. went even further on January 9, telling the BBC that the kingdom is still interested in a landmark normalization agreement with Israel, but that it must include “nothing less than an independent state of Palestine.”

"One doesn’t come without the other," Prince Khalid bin Bandar said.

After meeting with Mr. Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials on January 9, Mr. Blinken delivered a stark message, saying Israel must stop undercutting the Palestinians' ability to govern themselves with its expansion of settlements, home demolitions and evictions in the West Bank.

But he also said the Palestinian Authority “has a responsibility to reform itself, to improve its governance,” and that he would discuss that with the 88-year-old Mr. Abbas, who has not stood for elections since 2005 and lacks support among his own people.

The Palestinian Authority governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank under interim peace deals reached in the 1990s and cooperates with Israel on security matters. But it has been powerless to prevent the expansion of settlements in occupied territory it wants for a future state, and there have been no serious or substantive peace talks since Mr. Netanyahu returned to office in 2009.

Also Read | Israel faces Gaza ‘genocide’ case at U.N. top court

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has been unable to get Israel to make even relatively minor concessions to the Palestinians, like turning over all the tax revenue it collects on their behalf, or allowing the reopening of a U.S. Consulate to serve Palestinians in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Later on January 10, Mr. Abbas was set to met with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, two U.S. allies who have long served as mediators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Jordan's Red Sea city of Aqaba.

Israel has vowed to keep fighting until it crushes Hamas and returns scores of hostages held by the group after its Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war. Israeli officials say the campaign will continue through the rest of the year, and its own postwar plans call for open-ended military control over the territory, from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005.

Nearly 85% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have been driven from their homes by the fighting, and a quarter of its residents face starvation, with only a trickle of food, water, medicine and other supplies entering through an Israeli siege.

Mr. Blinken said more food, water, medicine and other aid needs to enter and be distributed effectively, and he called on Israel to “do everything it can to remove any obstacles."

Also Read | WHO axes medical aid delivery to north Gaza in absence of security guarantees

The offensive has reduced much of northern Gaza, including Gaza City, to a moonscape, raising concerns over whether the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled from those areas will ever be able to return. Far-right members of Mr. Netanyahu's government have called for them to be resettled elsewhere, which critics say would amount to ethnic cleansing.

Mr. Blinken said the U.S. was opposed to any such scenario and that resettlement is not the policy of the Israeli government. He also said he had secured agreement on a U.N. inspection mechanism in northern Gaza to evaluate how and when people can return.

The military is now focusing major operations on the southern city of Khan Younis and built-up refugee camps in central Gaza that date back to the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation. Hundreds of people have been killed in recent days in continuing strikes across the territory, including in areas of the far south where people have been told to seek refuge.

An airstrike late on January 9 hit a four-story house west of the southernmost city of Rafah, killing at least 14 people and wounding at least 20 others, including women and children, health officials said. Associated Press reporters saw the dead and wounded being brought into nearby hospitals.

Jaber Abu Hamed, who fled his home in Gaza City last month and is sheltering near the main hospital in Khan Younis, said he heard constant gunfire and explosions. “The ambulance sirens didn’t stop,” he said.

Also Read | Israel Army says 185 soldiers have been killed in Gaza war

Since the war began, Israel’s offensive has killed more than 23,200 Palestinians, roughly 1% of the territory’s population, and more than 58,000 people have been wounded, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. About two-thirds of the dead are women and children, health officials say. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

In the October 7 attack, in which Hamas overwhelmed Israel's defences and stormed through several communities, Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians. They abducted around 250 others, nearly half of whom were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November.

The Israeli military says it tries to avoid harming civilians and blames the high toll on Hamas because the militants fight in densely populated areas. It says it has killed some 8,000 militants — without providing evidence — and that 186 of its own soldiers have been killed in the offensive.

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