The US secretary of state Antony Blinken has promised to rally international support for rebuilding in Gaza, but warned that the US will not allow Hamas to benefit from reconstruction funds.
Blinken began his first trip to the Middle East, which is aimed at shoring up last week’s ceasefire, by meeting the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem and underlining the US commitment to Israel’s security.
He described it as a deep and personal concern for US president Joe Biden, who has come under fire from sections of the Democratic party for his handling of the war, the first conflict between Israel and Hamas since 2014.
“(Biden) has been one of Israel’s steadfast supporters for the last 50 years, having worked closely with every prime minister starting with Golda Meir,” Blinken said.
Blinken also promised to “continue to rebuild” the relationship with Palestinians, and repeated comments from Biden that both Israelis and Palestinians should “enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and democracy, to be treated with dignity”.
Ties frayed badly under President Donald Trump, who cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, and unveiled a peace plan which envisaged Israel holding onto most settlements and had no support from Palestinians.
In the afternoon Blinken is set to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He will not meet Hamas, which the US and Israel consider a terrorist organisation. He will then travel to Egypt, which brokered the ceasefire, and Jordan.
He called for greater economic opportunities in both the occupied West Bank territories and Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade since Hamas came to power in 2007 elections.
Israel says the controls on both people and goods are needed to prevent the Islamist militants gaining components they could use to attack Israel. Human Rights groups say it amounts to collective punishment of the 2 million Palestinians who live in Gaza, which is just 25 miles long and a maximum of seven miles wide.
Blinken said rebuilding Gaza, where infrastructure including power and water supplies and the only Covid testing centre, were destroyed in airstrikes, was critical to preventing more fighting.
On the day he arrived in Jerusalem Israel allowed food and fuel into the narrow coastal strip for the first time since fighting ended.
“To prevent a return to violence we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges, and that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza, and starting to rebuild,” he said.
For now the US appears focused just on preventing a return to violence. Before Blinken’s trip, his first to the region, US officials admitted off record that it was too soon to restart wider Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which effectively stalled in 2014.
Blinken also underlined the human cost of the war. Over 250 people were killed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, 66 of them children, and 12 people died when Hamas rockets struck Israel, two of them children. Each of them was a loved individual, he said, quoting Jewish scripture.
“As the Talmud teaches ‘To lose a life is to lose the whole world, whether that life is Palestinian or Israeli’,” he said.
The war broke out after weeks of clashes in Jerusalem, including violent Israeli police raids on the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the most sacred sites in Islam, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by settlers in East Jerusalem.
Tensions remain high with a court case over the evictions is due to resume soon and there were clashes at al-Aqsa over the weekend. The mosque sits in a sacred compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary – or Haram al-Sharif – and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
A 17year-old Palestinian student stabbed and injured an Israeli soldier and civilian on Monday, then was shot dead by police.
Biden had been criticised within his own party for being slow to act when fighting broke out. He said the US was working on back channel diplomacy focused on achieving the Egyptian-brokered truce.
On the eve of the trip more than 500 Democratic party staffers and alumni of his 2020 campaign signed an open letter calling on Biden to do more to protect Palestinians and hold Israel accountable for its actions in and over Gaza.
Netanyahu and Blinken said they had also discussed Iran, and Netanyahu said he had raised working together to expand normalisation between Israel and the Arab world.