By Simon Lewis
RAMALLAH/BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken said the Palestinian Authority (PA) should play a central role in the future of the Gaza Strip, as he met with Iraqi leaders and toured the region amid spiraling tensions over Israel’s war with Hamas.
Blinken passed through Israeli checkpoints to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and then traveled on to Iraq. It was his second visit to the region since the Hamas militants who rule Gaza launched a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,400 people and taking more than 240 others hostage, according to Israel.
Palestinian views, voices and aspirations need to be “at the center” of conversations about the future of Gaza, Blinken told reporters in Baghdad.
As Israel continued a campaign of air strikes that Gaza health officials say has killed 9,770 Palestinians, Secretary of State Blinken rebuffed calls for a ceasefire from Arab officials on Saturday after appealing, unsuccessfully, to Israel for more limited pauses to the fighting a day earlier.
“This is a process,” Blinken said about the push for humanitarian pauses, saying Israel has important questions about how they would work, and details are being discussed now.
It is important that any pause advance several issues, including hostage release, he said.
In discussions with the Iraqi government, Blinken said, “I made very clear that the attacks, the threats coming from militia that are aligned with Iran are totally unacceptable.”
The United States is sending a message to “anyone who might seek to take advantage of the conflict in Gaza to threaten our personnel here or anywhere else in the region: ‘Don’t do it,'” he said.
POST CONFLICT PLAN
As well as seeking to ensure the conflict does not spread in the region, Blinken is trying to kickstart discussions on how Gaza could be governed after the complete destruction of Hamas that Israel says is its aim.
Abbas told Blinken that Gaza is “an integral part” of the state Palestinians want, according to an account of the meeting from the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, which suggested any PA role in governing Gaza would have to be part of a wider settlement of the decades-old conflict.
“We will fully assume our responsibilities within the framework of a comprehensive political solution that includes all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” Abbas was quoted by WAFA as saying.
The two met for about an hour but did not address the media.
“We need to see the U.S. playing the role of an honest mediator, not adopting the Israeli narrative,” Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, told CBS on Sunday.
Blinken had some “good ideas” about the future he said, but “now is the time to ….stop the murder of civilians”
Abbas told Blinken there should be an immediate ceasefire and that aid should be allowed into Gaza, according to spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh.
Blinken said the United States was committed to getting aid into Gaza and restoring essential services there, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement on the meeting.
“The secretary also expressed the commitment of the United States to working toward the realization of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Miller said.
Blinken has suggested an “effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority” would make the most sense to ultimately run the strip but admitted that other countries and international agencies would likely play a role in security and governance in the interim.
Abbas’ PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has seen its popularity shrivel amid allegations of graft, incompetence and widely hated security cooperation arrangements with Israel. It is unclear who will succeed the aging and ailing Abbas, 87, a staunch opponent of Hamas.
The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan said on Saturday after meeting with Blinken that it was premature to talk about the future of Gaza, as they called for an immediate ceasefire to address the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the strip’s 2.3 million residents.
Blinken argued that a ceasefire would only allow Hamas to regroup, but is trying to convince Israel to agree to location-specific pauses that would allow much needed aid to be distributed within Gaza.
While Hamas tightly controls besieged Gaza, the West Bank is a complex patchwork of hillside cities, Israeli settlements and army checkpoints that split Palestinian communities.
Violence was already at a more than 15-year high this year but has surged further since the war began, with more than 170 attacks on Palestinians involving Jewish settlers recorded by the United Nations.
Blinken credited Abbas for tamping down tension in the West Bank and told him he had pressed Israeli officials for accountability, the senior State Department official said.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Ali Sawafta, additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Alexander Smith and Heather Timmons)