U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel and the Palestinians on Monday to exercise restraint and ease tensions amid a spike in violence that has put the region on edge.
Speaking in Cairo, just hours ahead of a two-day visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank, Blinken said it is imperative for both sides to work to de-escalate tensions that have soared since last week in what he called “a new and horrifying surge in violence” and prompted severe responses from each.
“We will be encouraging the parties to take steps to calm things down,” Blinken told reporters at a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. “There is no question that this is a very difficult moment.”
He repeated U.S. condemnations of militant attacks against Israelis and noted that “we deplore overall the loss of innocent civilian life.”
The latest spate of violence erupted last week with an Israeli military raid on a militant stronghold in the West Bank city of Jenin that killed 10 people, most of them militants, and a Palestinian shooting attack in an east Jerusalem Jewish settlement that killed seven Israelis.
And, on Monday, shortly before Blinken’s arrival, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man in the flashpoint city of Hebron, bringing the toll of Palestinians killed in January to 35.
The violence comes after months of Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank, which were launched after a wave of Palestinians attacks against Israelis in the spring of 2022 that killed 19 people.
But it has spiked this month during the first weeks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which has promised to take a tough stance against the Palestinians and ramp up settlement construction.
Blinken’s trip follows visits to Israel by President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Willian Burns. But Blinken’s meetings will be the highest-level U.S. engagement with Netanyahu since he retook power last month and the first since the surge in violence.
The visit, which was planned before the flare-up, was already expected to be fraught with tension over differences between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government, which is made up of settlement supporters.
After the Jenin raid, the Palestinians said they would cancel security coordination with Israel and after attacks against Israelis intensified, Israel said it would beef up Jewish settlements in the West Bank, among other steps.
Israeli Army Radio reported late Sunday that the government was also set to approve a rogue outpost deep inside the West Bank, and speed up approval for other such small settlements.
Israel also arrested 42 Palestinians, some relatives of the Jerusalem attacker, in its investigation into the attack. And the firebrand National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said he has ordered authorities to demolish illegally built Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem in response to the attack.
The Palestinians believe the Israeli retaliation, including the demolition of homes of attackers’ families, amounts to collective punishment and is illegal under international law.
The turmoil has added yet another item to Blinken’s lengthy diplomatic agenda in Jerusalem that was already set to include Russia’s war on Ukraine, tensions with Iran and crises in Lebanon and Syria; all of which weigh heavily in the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Easing strains on those issues, or at least averting new ones, are central to Blinken’s mission despite Netanyahu’s opposition to two of Biden’s main Mideast priorities: reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But, with both of those matters stalled and little hope of any resumption in negotiations, the administration is attempting just to keep the concepts on life support.