President Biden sent Foreign Minister Antony Blinken to the Middle East to secure the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas after 11 days of intense fighting.
“He will continue our government’s efforts to restore and support relations with the Palestinian people and leaders after years of neglect,” Biden said in a statement while reaffirming US commitment to Israel’s security. “And he will engage other important partners in the region.”
Mr. Blinken left Monday and will return on Thursday to visit Jerusalem. Ramallah in the West Bank; Cairo; and Amman, Jordan, according to the State Department. He planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials involved in the talks.
The US has worked with its allies Egypt, Qatar and several European nations to persuade both Israel and Hamas leaders to end their military campaigns. Washington has no direct contact with Hamas, which governs Gaza and is described by the US as a terrorist organization.
The Biden government said it had played an active, albeit calm, role in efforts to broker a ceasefire and attributed a crucial role to Egypt as it gave Cairo the opportunity to speak directly to Hamas leaders. During a tour of Arctic states, the leading US diplomat was forced to change his schedule and cancel meetings in order to operate the phones and encourage de-escalation of the conflict.
This week marks the first trip to the Middle East as Secretary of State for Mr Blinken, who delayed the early trip due to the coronavirus pandemic. It should focus on “follow-up to consolidate the ceasefire and reduce the risk of further conflict,” the State Department said.
The trip takes place amid heightened tensions between Palestinians and Israelis despite the ceasefire on Friday. Tensions were heightened by the worst violence in decades between Israel’s Jews and its two million Arab citizens, roughly a fifth of the population, over the Israel-Hamas conflict.
An unidentified man stabbed two Israelis, including a soldier, in Jerusalem on Monday as Israeli police launched an operation to track down and arrest those involved in the communal violence that broke out earlier this month.
The two victims – one seriously wounded – were evacuated to hospital, according to the Israeli medical service. Footage and images on social media showed an Israeli soldier kneeling with a knife in his back while medics worked to stem the bleeding.
Israeli police said they shot the attacker but did not provide any further details.
Palestinian media identified the attacker as 17-year-old Zurhi al-Tawil from East Jerusalem. All posts on Mr Tawil’s Facebook page have been deleted, but his personal statement about his picture quoted a song produced by the Hamas military wing and then the name of the group, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, followed by a heart.
“I am a Muslim, and if victory becomes difficult, I will not turn away,” says the quote from the song.
An Israeli police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the attacker’s identity.
A Hamas spokesman could not be immediately reached for a request for comment.
In the past two weeks, Israeli police arrested more than 1,500 people suspected of being involved in the riot and charged around 150 suspects, it said on Monday. About 90% of those arrested were Arab citizens and the rest were Israeli Jews, Israel’s Channel 12 reported. An Israeli police spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.
The week-long operation – called Law and Order – will involve thousands of police officers and border guards, including reservists, police said.
Healing these communal divisions is now a challenge for Israel as it also tackles the fragile ceasefire with Hamas and growing Palestinian demands in the West Bank and the embattled city of Jerusalem for a longer-term solution to their decades-long conflict.
The Biden government wants to return to a broader peace process that it hopes will culminate in two separate states for Israelis and Palestinians. Still, officials said it is premature to initiate this process while the Israel-Hamas conflict is tough.
“We do not hesitate in any way,” said the State Department official about the goals of a two-state solution. “It is probably premature at this point to invite the parties to Washington or elsewhere.”
An immediate priority will be to help the United Nations distribute aid in Gaza and to strengthen the role of the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, on the territory rather than that of Hamas.
According to Israeli officials, Hamas is trying to unite Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank and Arabs in Israel into a resistance movement. The group is now calling for all reconstruction aid to be channeled through Hamas and not through the Palestinian Authority, through which the international community previously worked on the development of the Gaza Strip.
According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 people were internally displaced in the recent fighting and 300 buildings with 1,000 residential units were destroyed
Israel’s internal strife only calmed down last week as the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip intensified and Israelis turned to bomb shelters to protect themselves from the militant group’s missiles. Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians in Jerusalem sparked the conflict which, according to the United Nations and Israeli medical officials, killed more than 250 people.
Local violence in Israel increased on May 11, the day after Hamas fired rockets from the Gaza Strip in response to Israeli police work on the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Hundreds of residents of Lod, a city in central Israel, protested in the streets, waving Palestinian flags and setting fire to cars, Jewish homes and a synagogue in a mixed neighborhood.
On May 12, a Jewish mob raged on the beach promenade in Bat Yam, another city south of Tel Aviv, looking for Arabs, pulled a man out of his passing car and beat him. Similar scenes have also occurred in recent weeks in the northern city of Acre, which is usually a tourist destination, and in Jaffa, part of the metropolis of Tel Aviv.
Video later shared online showed a group of young Arab men prowling the streets with baseball bats shouting “Allahu akbar” or God is great in Haifa, a city in northern Israel, and a similar group of Jewish men in a nearby neighborhood and called “Death to the Arabs”.
Management of the complex political outlook could be left to a new Israeli government. Opposition leader Yair Lapid has until June 2nd to form a coalition in which he or another politician could replace Mr Netanyahu after 12 years as prime minister, just as Israel faces one of its greatest challenges.
Mr. Lapid has described internal violence as an existential threat to Israel. In the past two weeks, Israel’s Internal Security Service has received about 154,000 reports from the public and the police have handled about 40,000 incidents, violence or other issues.
âDov Lieber in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.
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