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Blinken voices sorrow for 'innocent' Palestinians killed

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, on the right,  welcomes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, on January 31, 2023
— Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed sorrow Tuesday for "innocent" Palestinians killed in months of spiralling violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, warning the Palestinian people faced "a shrinking horizon of hope".

Urging both sides to prevent further bloodshed, Washington's top diplomat held talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on the final stop of his Middle East tour, following meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cabinet ministers.

In the latest wave of violence, a Palestinian shot dead seven people in an Israeli settlement neighbourhood in annexed east Jerusalem on Friday, a day after the deadliest army raid in years in the West Bank claimed 10 Palestinian lives.

This month the conflict has killed 35 Palestinian adults and children -- including attackers, militants and civilians -- as well as the six Israeli civilians, including a child, and one Ukrainian, killed on Friday.

Speaking in Ramallah, Blinken expressed his "sorrow for the innocent Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives in escalating violence over the last year".

Relatives at the funeral of Palestinians killed during an Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank on January 26, 2023 that the army labelled a 'counterterrorism operation'

Israel has in isolated cases said that its forces have mistakenly killed non-combatants in the context of raids on militants allegedly linked to fatal attacks on Israeli civilians.

Alongside Abbas, Blinken said: "What we're seeing now for Palestinians is a shrinking horizon of hope, not an expanding one, and that too, we believe, needs to change."

- 'Unwavering support' -

Blinken also urged Abbas's Palestinian Authority to boost its "accountability".

Palestinian opinion polls show that 87-year-old Abbas is deeply unpopular. Palestinians in part accuse him of failing to effectively oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Aharon Natan, the father of 14-year-old Asher Natan, a victim of a shooting attack in east Jerusalem on January 27, 2023, mourns at the cemetery

Abbas told Blinken that Israel was "responsible for what is happening today".

Before departing the region, Blinken said he had heard "constructive ideas" on how to "lower the temperature" during his talks.

Senior members of his team will stay behind to see "how these steps might actually be advanced", he told reporters, declining to detail specific initiatives.

The year 2022 was the deadliest in the West Bank since the United Nations started tracking fatalities in the occupied territory in 2005.

Blinken on Monday also condemned Palestinians "who celebrate... acts of terrorism that take innocent lives", in the wake of the shooting in east Jerusalem.

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 government Netanyahu formed in December.

Jerusalem and Jenin

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 Israeli military later hit sites in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave.

- No 'settlement expansion' -

Netanyahu's cabinet has moved to punish "the families of terrorists that support terrorism" with home demolitions and other measures.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a joint news conference in Jerusalem

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.

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.

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.

Blinken reiterated US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.

Speaking in Ramallah, Blinken criticised Israeli moves which Washington believes create barriers to the two-state solution.

He listed "settlement expansion, the legalisation of (settlement) outposts, demolitions and evictions, disruptions to the historic status of the holy sites, and of course incitement and acquiescence to the violence".

The Dome of the Rock shrine at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City

Controversial policies such as settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes have been high on the agenda of Netanyahu's new government, the most-right wing administration in Israeli history.