Blinken Meets Saudi Crown Prince on Mideast Push for Pause in Gaza War

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken began a diplomatic push in the Middle East on Monday for a deal that would pause the war in the Gaza Strip and release the hostages there, even as a drone struck a military base used by American troops and allied forces in eastern Syria.

Mr. Blinken, making his fifth trip to the region since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, met in Riyadh with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the first stop on a trip that will also include meetings in Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank.

Speaking with the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Mr. Blinken “underscored the importance of addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and preventing further spread of the conflict,” the State Department said. It added that they discussed “an enduring end to the crisis in Gaza that provides lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Mr. Blinken is hoping to hammer out an agreement that could temporarily stop the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, secure the release of the remaining hostages there in exchange for Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, and allow more desperately needed aid into the territory.

But even as Mr. Blinken sought to ease tensions in the region, a drone struck a base in eastern Syria that has housed American and allied troops, killing six Kurdish fighters, according to the official media outlet of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group.

Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said there were no reported U.S. injuries in the wake of the drone strike.

The Syrian Democratic Forces blamed the attack on a militia group linked to Iran, which would make it the latest in a series of strikes by Iranian-backed militias since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas.

For the last decade, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which consists of fighters from the local Kurdish ethnic minority, has operated in eastern Syria with support from a U.S.-led international coalition that needed a local partner to battle the Islamic State group. Though ISIS has been largely defeated there, a limited number of American troops have remained on the ground.

American forces in the region have come under repeated attack by militant groups supported by Iran over the last few months, as the groups have targeted bases and troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, as well as on U.S.-owned ships in the Red Sea.

The United States and its allies have retaliated with several rounds of airstrikes, including some over the weekend against a militia in Yemen, in response to the ship attacks, and on Friday against targets in Syria and Iraq in response to a drone attack that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan.

The Biden administration has said it does not want to engage in a direct military conflict with Iran. Iranian officials, too, have said that they want to avoid a wider war, while warning they would respond, if attacked.

“Iran is not seeking to increase the tension and crisis in the region — we don’t support tension and chaos,” a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said on Monday. “Iran has shown that it will react forcefully to any threats against its sovereignty and will not hesitate to deploy all its capabilities for a reply that will bring them regret.”

Analysts and American officials have said that Iran exercises varying degrees of control over the armed groups it supports around the region. And analysts have warned that both sides risk the tit-for-tat attacks spiraling out of control.

Amid fears of a broader war, Israeli forces were advancing on Monday toward Rafah, a southern city in Gaza that is a main entry point for aid and a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced from their homes earlier in the war.

On Monday, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, called Rafah “Hamas’s last stronghold.”

“Every terrorist hiding in Rafah should know, they will end like those in Khan Younis, Gaza or any other place in the Gaza Strip,” Mr. Gallant said, referring to other cities in the territory that have been bombarded by Israeli forces. “Surrender or death — there isn’t a third option.”

The turn toward Rafah could heighten international pressure on Israel, including from its closest allies, over the safety and well-being of civilians.

At a news conference in Washington on Monday, Vedant Patel, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, pointed out that Rafah is an important conduit for humanitarian aid and a place where Americans and other foreign citizens have been able to leave Gaza and enter Egypt. He also noted that more than 1 million people are sheltering there.

“So we, of course, would want any operation being conducted in that region to take that into mind,” he said.

Israel invaded Gaza after Hamas-led gunmen killed about 1,200 people in Israel and abducted another 240 in a cross-border attack on Oct. 7, according to Israeli officials. Since then, more than 27,000 people in Gaza have been killed in Israel’s military campaign, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Israel has said that its troops will continue fighting in Gaza until Hamas is defeated and the remaining hostages, believed to number more than 100, are freed.

As the toll of the war has risen, American diplomats have sought to broker some kind of respite to the fighting, including with Mr. Blinken’s repeated tours of the region.

By Monday evening, the United States had nothing to publicly announce on a hostage and cease-fire deal. A broadcaster affiliated with Hamas, Al-Aqsa, reported on Sunday that the group was still considering the proposal, a week after it was formulated.

In Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration is also hoping to urge the country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a long-term objective that the United States considers important to stabilizing the Middle East.

Under a proposed deal, the United States would offer Saudi Arabia a defense treaty, help with a civilian nuclear program and increase arms sales, while the Saudis and Americans would, in theory, get Israel to accept conditions for concrete steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state in return for Saudi recognition.

Yet even as much of the world urged Israel to ease the humanitarian in Gaza, the United Nations turned to investigate the main aid agency for Palestinians in the territory, prompted by Israel’s accusation that 12 agency employees had joined the Oct. 7 attack or its aftermath.

On Monday, the United Nations appointed Catherine Colonna, a former French foreign minister, to lead a review of the agency, UNRWA. Israel’s accusation led at least 12 countries, including the United States and Germany, the two biggest donors, to suspend funding for the agency.

The review will “assess whether the agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made,” the U.N. said.

Leily Nikounazar, Michael D. Shear and Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.

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