Following a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says Washington will reopen its consulate in Jerusalem and restore ties with Palestinians.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, on May 25, 2021.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, on May 25, 2021. (Alex Brandon / AFP)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has announced plans to reopen a key diplomatic outreach office to the Palestinians and pledged nearly $40 million in new aid — reversing key policies of the Trump administration as he moved to bolster the embattled Palestinian government in the occupied West Bank.

On his first official visit to the region, Blinken met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders with the immediate aim of shoring up last week's cease-fire that ended 11 days of attacks between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. 

He vowed on Tuesday to “rally international support” for the effort while also promising to ensure that none of the aid would reach Hamas.

READ MORE: Blinken backs Israeli 'right' to attack Gaza, says aid to exclude Hamas

Blinken repeatedly alluded to the underlying issues of the decades-old conflict and expressed empathy for both sides, but he showed little interest in launching another US push for lasting peace, perhaps because previous efforts by past administrations have all failed. 

Instead, he expressed hope for creating a “better environment” that might one day yield peace talks.

Despite these modest aims, Blinken made clear that President Joe Biden will pursue a more even-handed approach to the region than former President Donald Trump, who sided overwhelmingly with Israel in virtually every area of disagreement with the Palestinians.

“As I told the president, I’m here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom opportunity and dignity,” he said after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.

In an act with great symbolic meaning, Blinken said the US would reopen its Jerusalem consulate — an office that for years served as the de facto embassy to the Palestinians.

Trump had downgraded its operations and placed them under his ambassador to Israel when he moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city in 2018. 

The embassy move infuriated the Palestinians, who claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital, and led them to sever most ties with the Trump administration.

READ MORE: US offers aid, Palestine consulate but avoids engaging in peace process 

Blinken did not provide a firm date for the reopening but said that Michael Ratney, a senior US diplomat who has previously served as consul general in Jerusalem, would soon be returning to the region.

Blinken also announced some $38.5 million in additional aid for the Palestinians. In all, the Biden administration has pledged some $360 million to the Palestinians, after the Trump administration cut almost all aid. Tuesday’s pledges included $5.5 million in emergency assistance for Gaza.

Israel's 11-day offensive killed more than 250 people Palestinians and caused heavy destruction in the impoverished coastal territory.

Blinken promised that any assistance will be kept out of the hands of Hamas, which Israel and the US consider a terrorist group.

The US is trying to bolster Abbas, who has been sidelined by recent events, in his rivalry with Hamas and on the international stage.

Abbas heads the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, whose forces were driven from Gaza when Hamas won the elections there in 2006. He now administers only parts of the occupied West Bank. 

Though deeply unpopular at home, he is seen internationally as the representative of the Palestinian people and a key partner in the long-defunct peace process.

READ MORE: What's behind Palestinian frustration with Mahmoud Abbas?

The truce that ended Israel's Gaza offensive on Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the deeper issues plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something Blinken acknowledged after meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“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,” he said.

Those challenges include a hawkish Israeli leadership that seems unwilling to make major concessions, Palestinian divisions, years of mistrust and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.

The conflict was blazed out when Israeli police raided Al Aqsa Mosque by using rubber-coated steel bullets and stun grenades on Palestinians.

The protests were directed at Israel’s policing of the area during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.

The truce remains tenuous since tensions are still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.

On Tuesday, the leader of the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that Israeli actions at Al Aqsa could provoke fighting across the Middle East. “Jerusalem means a regional war," said Nasrallah, whose group fought Israel in a monthlong war in 2006.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is fighting for his political life after a fourth inconclusive election in two years. He faces mounting criticism from Israelis who say he ended the offensive prematurely, without halting rocket attacks or dealing a heavier blow to Hamas.

In his remarks after his meeting with Blinken, Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians, warning of a “very powerful” response if Hamas breaks the cease-fire.

READ MORE: Sheikh Jarrah: A new microcosm of Israeli Apartheid

Netanyahu spoke of “building economic growth” in the occupied West Bank but said there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognise Israel as a “Jewish state.” The Palestinians have long objected to that demand, saying it undermines the rights of Israel’s own Palestinian minority.

Blinken repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself and said the US would assist Israel in replenishing its Iron Dome rocket-interception system.

But he also called on leaders of all sides to chart a “better course” in hopes of laying the groundwork for peace talks aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that Washington backed a two-state solution to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians if the right conditions were met.

"Ultimately, there's a possibility of resuming the effort to achieve a two-state solution, which we continue to believe is the only way to truly assure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, and of course to give the Palestinians the state they're entitled to," he said in Jerusalem.

He added that could start with a successful reconstruction effort in besieged Gaza, which “has the potential to undermine” Hamas. He also urged all sides to refrain from moves that could escalate tensions or reignite violence.

READ MORE: Palestinian resistance: How diverse is it?

Blinken on Wednesday heads to neighboring Egypt and Jordan, which have acted as mediators in the conflict. Egypt succeeded in brokering the Gaza ceasefire after the Biden administration pressed Israel to wind down its offensive.

OIC countries seek UN probe into possible crimes in Gaza conflict

Meanwhile, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries called on the United Nations to investigate possible crimes committed during the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Palestinian armed group Hamas and to establish command responsibility.

The UN Human Rights Council will hold a special session on the latest conflict on Thursday, at the request of Pakistan, as coordinator of the OIC, and the State of Palestine.

READ MORE: Israel stalls entry of some aid trucks into battered Gaza

The countries submitted a draft resolution late on Tuesday that would establish an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate all human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, since April 13. It would also examine all underlying root causes of tensions and instability, "including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity," the draft said.

The independent team would collect and analyse evidence of crimes perpetrated, including forensic material, "in order to maximise the possibility of its admissibility in legal proceedings".

Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said in a tweet last week that convening the session "targeting Israel is testament to the clear anti-Israeli agenda of this body". Its sponsors were "only rewarding the actions of Hamas, a terrorist organisation", she added.

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

Since being set up in 2006, the UN rights council, a 47-member forum, has held eight previous special sessions that have condemned Israel and set up several probes into alleged war crimes.

The United States rejoined the forum under President Biden after the Trump administration quit accusing it of an anti-Israel bias. The US delegation currently has observer status but no vote.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies