Blinken heads to Israel and Middle East amid regional turmoil

US top diplomat seeks to defuse Israel-Hamas tensions and prevent wider war.

As the Israel-Hamas conflict threatens to engulf the region, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to embark on his fourth emergency trip to the Middle East, an official said.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Blinken will depart from Washington on Thursday evening and will visit Israel, among other destinations. The official did not provide more details, but noted that Blinken has previously traveled to several Arab countries.

This will be Blinken’s fifth visit to Israel – not counting a trip with President Joe Biden – and his fourth to the region since October 7, when Hamas militants launched the most lethal attack ever on Israeli soil, sparking a fierce Israeli response.

The situation worsened on Tuesday, when a top Hamas leader was killed in a presumed Israeli strike near Beirut, raising the specter of a broader war.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said earlier Wednesday that “no one benefits – not any country in the region, not any country in the world – from seeing this conflict escalate further than it already has.”

Meanwhile, in Iran, which supports Hamas, at least 103 people died on Wednesday when bombs exploded in a crowd that was honoring Revolutionary Guards general Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated four years ago in a US strike ordered by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump.

The US denied any involvement by itself or Israel, and a senior Biden administration official said it seemed to be a “terrorist attack” similar to those perpetrated by the Islamic State extremist group, which is an enemy of Shiite-dominated Iran.

The Biden administration has stood by Israel with public and diplomatic backing and with arms, with Blinken recently overriding congressional scrutiny to expedite a weapons sale to Israel.

Biden’s stance has sparked outrage in some parts of the Arab world and has been a drawback with much of the left-wing base of his Democratic Party, with elections less than a year away.

But the Biden administration has also expressed frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the high civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, as well as inflammatory remarks from Netanyahu’s far-right coalition allies.

The State Department has rebuked Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has advocated for the expulsion of Gazans from the Palestinian enclave.

On October 7, Hamas fighters penetrated Israel, killing about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP count based on official Israeli data.

In retaliation for the worst attack in its history, Israel unleashed a relentless assault that has left large parts of Gaza in ruins and taken over 22,300 lives, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory.

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