US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to the Middle East to press Israeli and Palestinian leaders and regional players, excluding Gaza's Hamas government, to build on last week’s ceasefire.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint press conference following meetings with Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, at Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 18, 2021.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint press conference following meetings with Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, at Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 18, 2021. (AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading for the Middle East to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials, among other regional leaders, in a bid to bolster a frail-yet-intact ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

US President Joe Biden announced Blinken would depart on Monday for a short visit to Israel, the occupied West Bank, Jordan and Egypt for what will be the Biden administration’s highest-level in-person meetings on the crisis that erupted earlier this month.

Blinken will travel to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo and Amman through Thursday and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah, the State Department said.

His trip will not include a meeting with Hamas, who run besieged Gaza. 

Biden came under criticism from world leaders and many within his own Democratic party for not pushing US ally Israel more publicly to call a ceasefire during a blitz that killed at least 248 Palestinians in Gaza. 

Israel's aggression in Gaza drew sharp criticism from some liberal members of the US Congress who have questioned American arms sales to the Jewish state.

"Blinken will meet with Israeli leaders about our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. He will continue our administration’s efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders after years of neglect," Biden said in a statement released by the White House.

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'Immediate assistance'

Blinken will also discuss "international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza in a way that benefits the people there and not Hamas, and on reducing the risk of further conflict in the coming months," Biden added.

Israeli strikes on Gaza this month killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, and have wounded more than 1,900 people, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

Rockets and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and a Palestinian teenager, an Israeli soldier, one Indian, and two Thai nationals, Israeli medics said. 

The United Nations says the overwhelming majority killed in Israeli air strikes, whose stated aim was targeted armed Hamas combatants, were civilians.

READ MORE: Israel police arrest over 1,500 Palestinians in two weeks amid Gaza tension

Criticism over initial inaction

The administration had been roundly criticised for its perceived hands-off initial response to the deadly violence, with US politicians demanding it take a tougher line on Israel and its response to rocket attacks from Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza.

Israel’s attacks on Gaza followed spiking tensions in occupied Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan where Israeli police deployed heavy-handed tactics against Palestinian worshippers in and around Al Aqsa Mosque.

A major flashpoint in recent days has been a court case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from occupied East Jerusalem homes in Sheikh Jarrah claimed by Jewish settlers.

Palestinians protesting in solidarity with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah have been targeted by Israeli forces.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed the entire city in 1980 – a move that has never been recognised by the international community.

The Biden administration has defended its response by saying it engaged in intense, but quiet, high-level diplomacy to support a ceasefire, which was ultimately arranged last week after Egyptian mediation.

READ MORE: Biden backs Israel despite its brutal killing of civilians in Palestine

Humanitarian initiatives

Blinken on Sunday in a CNN interview said the time is not right for an immediate resumption in negotiations between the two sides but that steps could be taken — mainly humanitarian initiatives — to repair damage from Israeli air strikes in Gaza, which caused significant damage to civilian infrastructure and deaths.

“I don’t think we’re in a place where getting to some kind of a negotiation for what ultimately, I think, has to be the result, which is a two-state solution, is the first order of business,” he said.

“We have to start building back in concrete ways and offering some genuine hope, prospects, opportunity in the lives of people.”

Gaza has been ruled by Hamas since a 2006 election saw the religious party wrest power from Abbas' more secular Fatah. 

Israel blockaded Gaza in 2007 by sea, air and land, saying this prevents Hamas' armed wing from bringing in arms. 

Palestine has no formal military, whereas Israel is among the world's top 20 strongest militaries with highly advanced defence systems. 

READ MORE: UN calls for 'political process' after Israeli bombing ravages Gaza

READ MORE: Gaza rising from the ashes: The cycle of construction and destruction

Source: TRTWorld and agencies