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Blinken will visit Israel at a moment of mounting tension over the war in Gaza

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, talks to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, during their meeting at Tahrir palace in Cairo, on Thursday.
Amr Nabil
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AP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, talks to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, during their meeting at Tahrir palace in Cairo, on Thursday.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Ahead of a high-stakes visit to Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt on Thursday for talks on a potential cease-fire in Gaza.

Blinken said that "gaps are narrowing" in talks aimed at reaching a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of Israeli hostages being held by Hamas.

"There's still difficult work to get there, but I continue to believe it's possible," Blinken said in remarks alongside his Egyptian counterpart.

Blinken's arrival in Cairo followed the launch of an Israeli raid Monday on the Al-Shifa medical complex in Gaza, the territory's largest hospital, for the second time since the start of the between Israel and Hamas.

The Israeli military is calling the raid a "precise" operation, but with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza continuing to spiral, the attack is adding new urgency to cease-fire calls ahead of Blinken's arrival in Israel on Friday.

An Israeli official told NPR on Thursday that Blinken will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ministers from the Israeli war cabinet. The group is expected to discuss cease-fire negotiations and Netanyahu's intention to launch an operation in Rafah, where the majority of Gaza's displaced population has been forced to shelter.

The U.S. also plans to introduce a new resolution on Gaza to the United Nations Security Council, according to a copy of a draft obtained by NPR. The U.S. is expecting a vote as early as Friday. The U.S. has vetoed previous resolutions on the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip and rejected calls for an immediate cease-fire. This new draft includes language that supports a cease-fire tied to a hostage release.

The Israeli military continues its operation at Al-Shifa

The Israeli military's attacks on Al-Shifa, one of the few remaining partially functioning hospitals in Gaza, have forced many women and children who were using the hospital for shelter to flee further south, according to eyewitnesses.

One witness, who wished to remain anonymous out of concerns for their safety, told NPR the upper floors of the surgical ward of the hospital had caught fire. Ezzeddine Lulu, a medical student at Al-Shifa,posted a video on Instagramfrom inside the facility, and said the hospital is without water, electricity and food.

The Israeli military said no civilians have been killed since the start of the operation, and that troops have supplied food, water and generators for the hospital.

The raid on Al-Shifa has so far killed "over 140 terrorists" and netted more than 250 arrests of individuals that troops have identified as Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters, according to Daniel Hagari,a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Israeli authorities say weapons have also been uncovered and that "hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists" were found hiding in the hospital, including "senior officials" of the terrorist groups.

Among those captured was Mahmoud Qawasmeh, a senior Hamas operative tied to the 2014 kidnapping and murderof three Israeli teens: Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, according to news reports.He was arrested and brought back to Israel for questioning, the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet said.

Israeli soldiers move on the top of a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border, as seen from southern Israel, on Thursday.
Ohad Zwigenberg / AP
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AP
Israeli soldiers move on the top of a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border, as seen from southern Israel, on Thursday.

Israel and U.S. politicians in tense back and forth

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas-led militants that killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, President Biden has repeatedly expressed support for Israel's response.

Biden has said Israel has the right to defend itself, but the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has created growing tension between U.S. and Israeli officials about the direction of the war. More than 31,900 Palestinians have been killed since fighting began, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, and in northern Gaza, the world's leading authority on hunger says the risk of famine is now "imminent."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's criticism of Netanyahu in a speech last week is adding to the strain. In his remarks, Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish American leader, criticized Netanyahu's handling of the war and called for a new election in Israel.

Republicans, however, are embracing Netanyahu, who spoke to Senate Republicans via video conference this week during the party's weekly closed lunch meeting. Netanyahu has also been invited to address Congress by House Speaker Mike Johnson.

One of the biggest points of tension between Democrats and Netanyahu is the prime minister's intention to carry out military operations in Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians have been forced to take refuge.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke Monday, in their first call in over a month, during which Biden urged his Israeli counterpart not to go through with an attack on Rafah.

Despite calls for restraint from the White House and other Democrats, Netanyahu has signaled no intention to change course.

"President Biden, whose support I appreciate, asked to present us with the proposals from his side in the humanitarian sphere, and also on other topics. And as I have said – there have been times when we have agreed with our friends, and there have been times when we have not agreed with them," Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday about his call with Biden. "In the end, we have always done what is vital for our security, and this is what we will do this time as well."

Meanwhile, the U.S. is pursuing other diplomatic channels.

Before his meeting Thursday with the Egyptian president, Blinken met Wednesday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

In the next week, Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant is heading to Washington, D.C. at U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's invitation, his office announced. Gallant and others will also meet with White House officials and members of Congress.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry was critical of Blinken's efforts at "shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East," according to Al Jazeera.

Blinken's work has yet to bring "any tangible results" for Gaza and has given Israel more time to "escalate its aggression against our people," the ministry said in a statement.

While frustration with Netanyahu's handling of the war runs deep among many Israelis — particularly over his inability to secure the release of all remaining Israeli hostages taken captive on Oct. 7 — a subset of the Israeli population is also deeply unhappy with the Biden administration's latest positions.

The Mothers of IDF Soldiers organization, which represents moms of service members currently fighting in the war, launched a new campaign targeting Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. A new banner from the group that reads "Don't Run With Sinwar" depicts Biden, Harris and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar together in an attempt to highlight how the administration's actions are benefiting Hamas.

"The latest policies of the U.S. administration threaten the fight against terrorism," states the campaign. "The latest policies of the Biden administration, are unfortunately strengthening Hamas in its war against Israel. Anyone who supports the elimination of Hamas must support Israel in finishing the war."

Jaclyn Diaz reported from Tel Aviv. Michele Kelemen in Washington, D.C., Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv, Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Anas Baba in Rafah contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz