Antony Blinken has visited Saudi Arabia at the start of a four-day trip to the Middle East, as pressure mounts on Washington to deliver a truce – and bring the region back from the brink – before Israel’s threatened assault on the last refuge for civilians in Gaza.
The US secretary of state is set to travel to the Gulf, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the occupied West Bank, in his fifth attempt at furious shuttle diplomacy in the region since October. The 7 October attack by Hamas that killed around 1,200 people in Israel and saw another 250 taken hostage, and Israel's bombardment of Gaza in response, has sparked clashes across the region. Gaza’s authorities say Israel’s air and ground assault has killed more than 27,400 Palestinians.
US officials have warned the situation in the Middle East is the most dangerous it has been in decades, as Iran-backed militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have entered the fray, attacking US positions and global shipping routes, in retaliation for support of Israel’s offensive.
In Riyadh, Mr Blinken met Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud.
White House officials have promised the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will be a “paramount priority” during the talks, as well as pushing forward an extended truce and hostage release deal, the details of which were delivered to Hamas last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators. Many hope a deal will ease pressure and prevent a wider regional war from erupting.
A key priority for the trip is to “deliver a message directly to countries in the region that the United States does not want to see the conflict escalated and will not escalate the conflict”, according to a senior US official briefing reporters en route to Riyadh.
But time is running out as Israel, which pushed ahead with its ferocious bombardment of the 26-mile-long Gaza Strip, is threatening a new ground assault on the southern town of Rafah. There, nearly half of Gaza’s 2.2 million people have desperately sought shelter, corralled in makeshift buildings against the border with Egypt.
The United Nations, which describes the town as a “pressure cooker of despair”, has warned any offensive in the area would be devastating for civilians, who are struggling with food, water and medical supply shortages and have nowhere to go. An assault on Rafah also worries neighbouring Egypt, which has refused to allow any influx of Palestinian refugees, in what it describes as a bid to prevent any permanent dispossession.
Palestinians desperately hope that Blinken may be able to clinch a deal before the renewed offensive decimates the town.
Sources close to the talks said that the latest version of the potential agreement, which has been shown to both sides, includes a 40-day truce, allowing delivery of humanitarian aid. During that period, militants would free remaining hostages.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the US plans to “relentlessly” press for an agreement, as timing is critical.
“The needs of the Palestinian people are something that are going to be front and centre,” Sullivan told CBS on Sunday.
“[A hostage deal] is in the national security interest of the United States. We are going to press for it relentlessly,” Sullivan said. “So this is a paramount priority for us.”
There are growing concerns that the US and any other countries backing Israel will be dragged into a region-wide Middle East conflict, as Iran-backed militias and rebel groups that support Hamas and Gaza have attacked US positions in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, as well as world shipping routes, dozens of times since October.
Over the weekend the US launched its most significant wave of strikes in years against Iran-backed armed factions in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the killing of three American servicemen and women the week before in Jordan. Also on Saturday the US and the UK struck positions held by Houthi rebels in Yemen, in a bid to quell Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea. These have hampered shipping and therefore even fed global inflation.
Exiled Hamas chief, Ismail Haniyeh, said last week he would travel to Cairo to deliver his response to the ceasefire proposal, but he has yet to arrive.
Officials with knowledge of the deal told The Independent that while many of the logistical details have been nominally signed off, there were still major sticking points: Hamas wants the US to push for a permanent ceasefire, not just a temporary truce and hostage exchange.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised to annihilate Hamas, and vowed “total victory”, insisting any pause in fighting would only be temporary. He is facing pressure from far-right members of his party who have threatened to quit rather than accept a longer-term ceasefire.
More than 80 per cent of Gaza’s population is displaced, while new analysis carried out by City University of New York and Oregon State University shows that more than half of Gaza’s buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Thousands of dead are feared unrecovered in the rubble. A crippling total siege imposed by Israel has also left hundreds of thousands without access to enough supplies.
There are concerns the death toll will rapidly soar as Israel announced it is preparing for a potential ground assault on Rafah, one of the few remaining places of refuge in Gaza.
An Israeli official told Reuters that the military would coordinate with Egypt to find ways of moving displaced people northward. But it is unclear where they would go, as major nearby cities, such as Khan Younis, have been destroyed.
Israeli tanks have been advancing for the past two weeks in Khan Younis, which is just a few miles north of Rafah, and also home to hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Fighting has also begun again in Gaza City in the north of the Strip, in areas Israel claimed to have subdued in the first two months of the war. Overall, Israel says it has killed 10,000 gunmen and lost 226 soldiers in Gaza.
Tom White, the Gaza director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said on Monday that a food convoy waiting to move into northern Gaza was hit by Israeli naval fire, and shared a photo of a partially destroyed aid truck.
UNRWA, which employs 13,000 people in Gaza and is the main UN agency providing food and supplies to Palestinians in the besieged Strip, has warned it will run out of money after at least a dozen countries temporarily suspended funding amid accusations that some agency employees participated in the 7 October attack.