U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel and the Palestinians on Monday to ease tensions amid a spike in violence that has put the region on edge. The bloodshed has alarmed the Biden administration as it attempts to find common ground with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing government.
Speaking on his arrival at Israel’s international airport near Tel Aviv after a brief visit to Egypt, Blinken said he had come at “a pivotal moment” and condemned Palestinian attacks that have targeted Israeli citizens but also called for restraint in response, saying that all civilian casualties are deplorable.
“To take an innocent life in an act of terrorism is always a heinous crime but to target people outside their place of worship is especially shocking,” he said, referring to an attack on Friday that killed seven people, many of whom were leaving a Jerusalem synagogue.
“We condemn it in the strongest terms,” he said. “We condemn all those who celebrate these and any other acts of terrorism that take civilian lives no matter who the victim is or what they believe. Calls for vengeance against more innocent victims are not the answer. And acts of retaliatory violence against civilians are never justified.”
The latest spate of violence erupted last week with an Israeli military raid on a militant stronghold in the West Bank city of Jenin last week that killed 10 people, most of them militants, followed by the shooting in an east Jerusalem Jewish settlement that killed seven Israelis.
Blinken said it is imperative for both sides to work to de-escalate tensions that have soared since last week in what he called “a new and horrifying surge in violence” that has prompted severe responses from each.
“It is the responsibility of everyone to takes steps to calm tensions, rather than to inflame them,” he said, “That is the only way to halt the rising tide of violence that has taken too many lives, too many Israelis, too many Palestinians.
On Monday, shortly before Blinken’s arrival, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man in the flashpoint city of Hebron, bringing the toll of Palestinians killed in January to 35.
The violence comes after months of Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank, which were launched after a wave of Palestinians attacks against Israelis in the spring of 2022 that killed 19 people.
But it has spiked this month during the first weeks of Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which has promised to take a tough stance against the Palestinians and ramp up settlement construction.
Blinken’s trip follows visits to Israel by President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Willian Burns. But Blinken’s meetings will be the highest-level U.S. engagement with Netanyahu since he retook power last month and the first since the surge in violence.
The visit, which was planned before the flare-up, was already expected to be fraught with tension over differences between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government, which is made up of settlement supporters.
After the Jenin raid, the Palestinians said they would cancel security coordination with Israel and after attacks against Israelis intensified, Israel said it would beef up Jewish settlements in the West Bank, among other steps.
Israeli Army Radio reported late Sunday that the government was also set to approve a rogue outpost deep inside the West Bank, and speed up approval for other such small settlements.
Israel also arrested 42 Palestinians, some relatives of the Jerusalem attacker, in its investigation into the attack. And the firebrand National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said he has ordered authorities to demolish illegally built Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem in response to the attack.
The Palestinians believe the Israeli retaliation, including the demolition of homes of attackers’ families, amounts to collective punishment and is illegal under international law.
The turmoil has added yet another item to Blinken’s lengthy diplomatic agenda in Jerusalem that was already set to include Russia’s war on Ukraine, tensions with Iran and crises in Lebanon and Syria; all of which weigh heavily in the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Easing strains on those issues, or at least averting new ones, are central to Blinken’s mission despite Netanyahu’s opposition to two of Biden’s main Mideast priorities: reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But, with both of those matters stalled and little hope of any resumption in negotiations, the administration is attempting just to keep the concepts on life support.