Blinken, Sissi to Discuss Israel-Hamas War

STATE DEPARTMENT — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is to meet Thursday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi amid efforts to contain the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip and secure the release of remaining hostages held by militants in Gaza.

Egypt played a key role in mediating an earlier temporary cease-fire during which Hamas released more than 100 hostages and Israel released 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Retired General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, former commander of U.S. Central Command, expressed pessimism during a webinar on Wednesday.

“I think it’s going to be very hard to get the remaining hostages back. … They’re the last thing Hamas has,” he said. “I am not optimistic that we’re going to get a lot of these hostages back.” 

Thursday’s talks in Cairo come a day after Blinken met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, and Abbas held subsequent talks with Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

The Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian leaders issued a joint statement calling for the international community to maintain pressure for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for the protection of Palestinian civilians.  The leaders also highlighted the need for displaced Palestinians to be able to return to their homes in Gaza, and they rejected any attempt by Israel to reoccupy parts of the territory after the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during televised remarks late Wednesday that Israel “has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.”

“Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law,” he said.

Israel has agreed to allow a United Nations mission to evaluate the situation in war-ravaged northern Gaza for the safe return of displaced Palestinians.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said Wednesday that the mission is “contingent on security guarantees” from Israel.

The U.N. hopes to carry it out as soon as possible, as it is critical to a planned increase in humanitarian aid for northern Gaza.

Diplomats said Israel has invited U.N. Security Council members to visit the country later this month.

A U.N. special envoy is also set to conduct a mission to Israel and the West Bank at the end of January to gather information on sexual violence against hostages, reportedly committed by Hamas militants during the Oct. 7 attacks and its aftermath.

More than 85% of Palestinians have been displaced across the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Red Sea attacks

Blinken on Wednesday warned of “consequences” after Yemen-based Houthi rebels launched their largest yet aerial attack on the Red Sea.

“We had the biggest attack — UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] missiles — just yesterday,” Blinken told reporters at Bahrain International Airport in Manama on Wednesday. “These attacks have been aided and abetted by Iran with technology, equipment, intelligence, information, and they are having a real-life impact on people.”

More than 20 countries, including Bahrain, have vowed to preserve freedom of navigation and freedom of shipping in the Red Sea, Blinken said after holding talks with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. 

“If these attacks continue as they did yesterday, there will be consequences,” Blinken added. He urged Iran to stop its assistance to Houthis but declined to elaborate on what specific consequences there would be. 

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a U.S.-drafted resolution condemning and demanding an end to Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

The Iran-backed Houthis said the attacks target ships affiliated with or bound for Israel, and that they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza health officials say more than 23,300 Palestinians, a large percentage of them women and children, have been killed in Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Israel began its military campaign to wipe out Hamas after Hamas fighters crossed into southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel said about 1,200 people were killed and about 240 captives taken in the terror attack.

Margaret Besheer, Jeff Seldin and Cindy Saine  contributed to this report. Some material came from Reuters, Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press.