Israel-Gaza conflict: US moves to rebuild relations with Palestinians

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Palestinians sit in a makeshift tent amid the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli air strikes in Gaza (23 May 2021)Image source, Reuters
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Palestinians say more than 1,000 housing and commercial units were destroyed in Israeli strikes

The US will seek to rebuild its relations with the Palestinians by reopening its consulate in Jerusalem and providing aid to help rebuild Gaza, Secretary of State Antony Blinken says.

After meeting President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Blinken stressed the need to shore up the truce that ended the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.

But he vowed to ensure the militant group that rules Gaza did not benefit.

He also reassured Israel of "America's ironclad commitment" to its security.

At least 242 people were killed in Gaza and 13 people were killed in Israel during 11 days of fierce fighting that ended on Friday with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

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Two children from Gaza City and Israel describe their experience of the Israel-Gaza conflict

The violence came after weeks of spiralling Israeli-Palestinian tension in occupied East Jerusalem which culminated in clashes at a holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews.

Hamas began firing rockets into Israel after warning it to withdraw from the site, triggering retaliatory air strikes from Israel on Gaza targets.

US pledges millions to rebuild Gaza

Mr Blinken travelled to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on Tuesday afternoon to hold talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"I am here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding a relationship with the Palestinian Authority and with the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, and dignity," he told a joint news conference.

Image source, Reuters
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Antony Blinken (left) held discussions with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

The Palestinians broke off contacts with former US President Donald Trump's administration and rejected his Middle East peace plan as biased towards Israel.

When he took office, President Joe Biden promised to restore aid to the Palestinians that was cut by his predecessor and reopen the diplomatic missions he closed.

Mr Blinken announced on Tuesday that the US would seek to "engage with and provide support to" the Palestinian people by moving forward with the process of reopening its consulate in Jerusalem.

The consulate covered Palestinian affairs until 2019, when it was merged with the new embassy to Israel that the Trump administration controversially opened in Jerusalem the previous year. The merger marked a significant downgrade of the US diplomatic mission to the Palestinians.

A senior Palestinian official told the AFP news agency that discussions were taking place over reopening the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington DC, which was closed by the Trump administration.

Image source, AFP
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The US consulate in Jerusalem used to act as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians (file photo)

Mr Blinken also said the US was working with the international community, the Palestinian Authority and Israel to assist in the relief and recovery efforts in Gaza, adding: "We have to respond to the profound need to help people in this moment."

He said the Biden administration would provide $5.5m (£3.9m) in immediate disaster assistance for Gaza and $32m for the emergency appeal by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa).

It has also notified Congress of its intention to provide $75m in additional development and economic assistance for the Palestinians in 2021.

But Mr Blinken stressed that Washington would ensure that Hamas, which controls Gaza, did not benefit. Hamas as a whole, or in some cases its military wing, is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, European Union and United Kingdom, as well as other powers.

'We must build on' ceasefire, Blinken tells Netanyahu

Mr Blinken started his three-day trip to the Middle East in Jerusalem earlier on Tuesday by meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I underscored America's ironclad commitment to Israel's security, and we discussed the importance of promoting peace, security, and dignity for all," Mr Blinken tweeted.

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Antony Blinken gave America's "ironclad commitment to Israel's security" during talks with Benjamin Netanyahu

Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu thanked Washington for "firmly supporting Israel's right of self-defence" during the escalation.

"We, too, will give meaning to our commitment to our self-defence: if Hamas breaks the calm and attacks Israel, our response will be very powerful," the prime minister warned.

He also said he had discussed with Mr Blinken replenishing the Iron Dome missile defence system that protects Israel from Palestinian rocket fire, and also ways to prevent Hamas rearming.

Mr Blinken said intense, behind-the-scenes diplomacy by President Biden had helped produce last week's ceasefire, and that "now we believe we must build on it".

He added: "We know that 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."

The UN said on Sunday that 242 Palestinians, including 66 children and 38 women, were killed in the conflict, and that its human rights office had verified that at least 129 of them were civilians.

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Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted most of the Palestinian rockets heading towards populated areas

It added that at least 230 of the Palestinian fatalities were seemingly killed by Israeli forces, and that some of the casualties in Gaza might have resulted from rockets falling short.

The Israel Defense Forces said it killed more than 200 militants during the fighting. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have not given overall casualty figures for their fighters.

In Israel, 13 people, including two children and three foreign nationals, were killed by Palestinian rocket or other fire, or when running for shelter during rocket attacks, its medical service said.

The UN cited the Palestinian housing ministry as saying 258 buildings, comprising 1,042 housing and commercial units, were destroyed during the fighting. In addition, 769 housing units were severely damaged and 14,536 suffered minor damage.

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Israel reopened the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza on Tuesday

Fifty-four education facilities, six hospitals and 11 primary healthcare facilities were also damaged, as was water, sanitation, and electric infrastructure, according to the UN.

Palestinian officials put reconstruction costs at tens of millions of dollars.

The Israeli government has not yet published its estimate for the damages, but many buildings and vehicles in Israel were damaged by rocket fire.