US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on an urgent Middle East mission on Sunday, as the Israel-Hamas conflict marked its third month with no sign of a lasting ceasefire.
Blinken, who visited Jordan and Qatar on Sunday and is expected to travel to Israel later this week, said his goal was to “work with our partners to try to prevent the conflict from spreading and to de-escalate the situation”.
The visit came as the Israeli military indicated that it may be winding down its major operations in northern Gaza, where it has inflicted heavy casualties and damage on Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups.
Israeli Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the head of the navy, said that the military would “continue to deepen the achievement” in northern Gaza, but that it would shift its focus to the central and southern parts of the coastal enclave, where Hamas still poses a significant threat.
Hagari said that the military had destroyed more than 90% of Hamas’s naval capabilities, including its submarines, drones, and rocket launchers, and had killed more than 1,000 militants in the area.
He also said that the military had prevented several attempts by Hamas to infiltrate Israel by sea or by underground tunnels, and had thwarted a planned attack on an offshore gas rig.
The Israeli military launched its offensive on Gaza on October 9, two days after Hamas and other Palestinian factions carried out a surprise attack on southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 240 people hostage.
The attack, which involved thousands of rockets, drones, and gunmen, was the deadliest and most audacious assault by Hamas since it seized control of Gaza in 2007.
Since then, the conflict has claimed more than 22,000 lives, mostly Palestinians, and wounded more than 58,000 people, according to Hamas officials.
The UN has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where more than 1.9 million people are facing shortages of food, water, medicine, and fuel, and where the health system is on the verge of collapse due to the Israeli bombardment and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The conflict has also sparked protests and clashes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and on the Israel-Lebanon border, as well as rocket and drone attacks on US military bases and civilian ships in the region by Iran-backed militias.
The Biden administration has repeatedly implored Israel to limit its offensive in Gaza and to avoid civilian casualties, while also affirming its right to self-defense and its support for its security.
Blinken said that the US was “deeply concerned” by the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the loss of innocent lives, and that it was working to provide urgent aid and to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian goods.
He also said that the US was “committed” to helping the parties reach a durable and sustainable ceasefire, and to advancing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, Blinken acknowledged that achieving these goals would be “very challenging”, given the deep mistrust and animosity between the sides, and the lack of a credible peace process.
He also said that the US faced “difficult conversations” with some of its allies in the region, who have expressed frustration and anger over the US stance on the conflict and its engagement with Iran.
Blinken said that he would listen to the concerns and perspectives of the regional partners, and that he would seek to “reaffirm and strengthen” the US ties and cooperation with them.
He also said that he would urge them to use their influence and leverage to help de-escalate the situation and to support the diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.
Blinken’s Middle East mission is his fourth trip to the region in three months, reflecting the high priority and the high stakes that the Biden administration attaches to the issue.
Blinken said that he hoped that his visit would “make a positive difference” and that he would “do everything in my power” to prevent the conflict from escalating into a wider war.