AP/ PTI

Blinken seeks progress on Gaza cease-fire-for-hostages deal in meetings with Egyptian mediators

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Cairo:  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Cairo on Tuesday for a meeting with Egyptian leaders that US officials said would concentrate mainly on the task of negotiating a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war in exchange for the release of hostages held by the militants.

Blinken’s visit also comes amid growing concerns in Egypt about Israel’s stated intentions to expand the combat in Gaza to areas on the Egyptian border that are crammed with displaced Palestinians.

Israel’s defence minister has said Israel’s offensive will eventually reach the town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have sought refuge and live in increasingly miserable conditions.

UN humanitarian monitors said Tuesday that Israeli evacuation orders now cover two-thirds of Gaza’s territory, driving thousands more people every day toward the border areas.

Egypt has warned that an Israeli deployment along the border would threaten the peace treaty the two countries signed over four decades ago. Egypt fears an expansion of combat to the Rafah area could push terrified Palestinian civilians across the border, a scenario Egypt has said it is determined to prevent.

Blinken, who was meeting Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has said repeatedly that Palestinians must not be forced out of Gaza.

During his latest trip, Blinken is seeking progress on a cease-fire deal, on potential normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and on preventing an escalation of regional fighting.

On all three fronts, Blinken faces major challenges. Hamas and Israel are publicly at odds over key elements of a potential truce. Israel has dismissed the United States’ calls for a path to a Palestinian state, and Iran’s militant allies in the region have shown little sign of being deterred by US strikes.

Egypt — along with Qatar, where Blinken will be later Tuesday — have been trying to mediate an agreement between Israel and Hamas that would lead to the release of more hostages in return for a several-week-long pause in Israeli military operations.

The outlines of such a deal were worked out by intelligence chiefs from the US, Egypt, Qatar and Israel late last month and have been presented to Hamas, which has not yet formally responded.

US officials said Blinken is hoping to get an update on Hamas’ response to the proposal in both Cairo and Doha. Blinken will then travel to Israel to brief Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his War Cabinet on Wednesday about what he heard from the Arab leaders.

As on his previous four trips to the Mideast since the Gaza war began, Blinken’s other main goal is to prevent the conflict from spreading, a task made exponentially more difficult by stepped up attacks by Iran-backed militias in the region and increasingly severe US military responses in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Red Sea that have intensified since last week.

Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday evening, shortly after arriving in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Saudi officials have said the kingdom is still interested in normalising relations with Israel in a potentially historic deal, but only if there is a credible plan to create a Palestinian state.

Blinken “underscored the importance of addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and preventing further spread of the conflict,” and he and the crown prince discussed “the importance of building a more integrated and prosperous region,” the State Department said in a statement.

But any such grand bargain appears a long way off as the war still rages in Gaza.

The Palestinian death toll from nearly four months of war has reached 27,478, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count but says most of the dead have been women and children.

The war has levelled vast swaths of the tiny enclave and pushed a quarter of residents to starvation.

UN humanitarian monitors said Tuesday that Israel’s evacuation orders in the Gaza Strip now cover two-thirds of the territory, or 246 square kilometers (95 square miles). The affected area was home to 1.78 million Palestinians, or 77% of Gaza’s population, before Hamas’ Oct 7 cross-border raid that ignited the war.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said in its daily report that the newly displaced only have about 1.5-2 liters (50-67 ounces) of water per day to drink, cook and wash. It also reported a significant increase in chronic diarrhea among children.

Parents of babies face a particularly difficult challenge because of the high cost or lack of diapers, baby formula and milk.

Zainab Al-Zein, who is sheltering in the central town of Deir al-Balah, said she had to feed her 2.5-month-old daughter solid food, such as biscuits and ground rice, well ahead of the typical 6-month mark because milk and formula were not available.

“This is known, of course, as unhealthy eating, and we know that it causes her intestinal distress, bloating and colic,” al-Zein said. “As you can see, 24 hours like this, she cries and cries continuously.”

Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until Israel crushes Hamas’ military and governing abilities and wins the return of the 100-plus hostages still held by the militant group.

Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in the attack and abducted around 250. More than 100 captives, mostly women and children, were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Meeting with troops on Monday, Netanyahu said Israel had defeated 18 of Hamas’ 24 battalions, without providing evidence. “We are on the way to absolute victory, and I want to tell you that we are committed to it and we will not give it up.”

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