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Blinken to urge end to violence on Middle East trip

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will urge an end to violence in the West Bank, is seen on a trip to Chicago on January 20, 2023
— Washington (AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel next week to Israel, the West Bank and Egypt where he will urge an end to violence after a deadly Israeli raid, the State Department said Thursday.

Blinken will hold his first in-person talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the veteran leader returned to power a month ago as head of Israel's most right-wing government in history.

He will also meet in Ramallah with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on his visit Monday and Tuesday.

Blinken "will underscore the urgent need for the parties to take steps to de-escalate tensions in order to put an end to the cycle of violence that has claimed too many innocent lives," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

The trip, while long in the planning, comes after a major flare-up in violence. Nine Palestinians were killed Thursday in an Israeli raid on a crowded refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin, officials in the occupied territory said.

"We understand there were civilian casualties, which is quite regrettable," Barbara Leaf, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, told reporters.

"Obviously there is the potential for things to worsen in security terms," she said.

Leaf voiced regret over the Palestinian Authority's announcement it would sever security cooperation with Israel over the raid.

"Far from stepping back on security coordination, we believe it's quite important that the parties retain and, if anything, deepen security coordination," she said.

Blinken will first on Sunday visit Egypt, a key intermediary between the Israelis and Palestinians which has succeeded in maintaining cordial ties with the administration of President Joe Biden despite his vows to get tougher due to human rights concerns.

Blinken will discuss regional issues including Libya and Sudan and meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the State Department said.

Netanyahu has a fraught relationship with Biden's Democratic Party, openly campaigning against previous president Barack Obama's Iran policy, and Biden has been determined to start off on a good foot with his latest government.

Blinken's trip follows a visit by Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, that was largely focused on Iran -- which remains a top concern for Netanyahu.

Blinken has repeatedly said that the Biden administration will judge Netanyahu's government by "the policies they pursue, not the personalities" that are inside it.

Those personalities include Itamar Ben-Gvir, who once hung a portrait in his home of a gunman who massacred Palestinian worshippers and now holds a national security post.

Ben-Gvir in early January sparked international statements of concern after he visited the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is holy both to Jews and Muslims.

Blinken will stress "the importance of upholding the historic status quo" at the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

The trip will be Blinken's fourth to Jerusalem since becoming the top US diplomat. He first went in May 2021, months into his tenure, after violence flared between Israel and the Palestinian militants Hamas in the Gaza Strip.