US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a joint news conference in Jerusalem
Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to meet Palestinian leaders Tuesday for his final stop on a Middle East tour aimed at curbing the worst outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in years.
After a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Blinken urged both sides to take “urgent steps” to calm tensions and said Washington would work to “restore a sense of security” craved by “Israelis and Palestinians alike”.
Israel is reeling from an attack Friday that killed seven civilians outside a synagogue in annexed east Jerusalem, a day after the deadliest army raid in years in the occupied West Bank claimed 10 Palestinian lives.
Map locating Jerusalem and West Bank's Jenin
After landing in Israel on Monday, Blinken criticised Palestinians who celebrated the synagogue attack, saying: “We condemn all those who celebrate… acts of terrorism, that take innocent lives.”
He also appeared to chastise Israelis blamed for dozens of incidents of reprisal violence following Friday’s shooting in an east Jerusalem settler neighbourhood.
“Retaliatory acts of violence against civilians are never justified,” he said.
Since the start of the year, the conflict has claimed the lives of 35 Palestinian adults and children – including attackers, militants and civilians.
Over the same period six Israeli civilians, including a child, and one Ukrainian civilian have been killed. All were shot dead in the attack Friday outside the synagogue.
- ‘Unwavering support’ -
Israeli soldiers patrol a shopping street in the centre of Jerusalem
Blinken is scheduled to hold talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who last week announced that his Palestinian Authority was cutting security coordination with Israel after the deadly West Bank raid.
Blinken is expected to urge the PA to continue working with Israel to stem militant attacks.
Before heading to the West Bank on Tuesday, Blinken met new Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who took office as part of the right-wing Netanyahu government elected last year.
Gallant praised Blinken for his “unwavering support” in helping safeguard Israel’s military superiority in the region.
The fatal east Jerusalem shooting was preceded by the Israeli forces’ deadliest operation in the West Bank in years, killing 10 people Thursday in the densely populated Jenin refugee camp. Israel said its forces targeted Islamic Jihad operatives.
The military later hit sites in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave.
Relatives attend the funeral of Palestinians killed during the Israeli raid on Jenin refugee camp
The Islamist group said Blinken’s visit “emphasises the absolute support and partnership with the (Israeli) occupation”.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has moved to punish “the families of terrorists that support terrorism” with home demolitions and other measures.
His government is also planning to rescind the rights to social security benefits of attackers’ relatives, and steps to make it easier for Israeli citizens to obtain permits to carry firearms.
- ‘Close the file’ -
Blinken had made an initial stop in Egypt, where he met President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commending “Egypt’s important role in promoting stability in the region.”
The diplomats and intelligence services of Egypt – a major recipient of US military aid – are regularly called upon to intercede between Israelis and Palestinians.
Aharon Natan, the father of 14-year-old Asher Natan, a victim of the January 27 shooting attack in east Jerusalem, mourns with her other son during his funeral
Blinken’s Israel visit is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who had tense relations with the previous Democratic president Barack Obama.
He also reiterated US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.
Netanyahu, a veteran leader, returned to power late last year at the helm of the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
During Netanyahu’s previous tenure, Israel established ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, under deals brokered by then president Donald Trump.
Netanyahu said Monday that expanding those deals and “working to close, finally, the file of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I think would also help us achieve a workable solution with our Palestinian neighbours”.
The Dome of the Rock shrine at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City