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Secretary of State Blinken's diplomatic efforts to contain Middle East conflict

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And turning back to today's main story - the war between Israel and Hamas. With an Israeli ground offensive likely imminent, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spent the past few days flying around the Middle East, meeting with leaders to try and contain the conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: What I've heard from virtually every partner was a determination, a shared view that we have to do everything possible to make sure this doesn't spread to other places, a shared view to safeguard innocent lives, a shared view to get assistance to Palestinians in Gaza who need it. And we're working very much on that.

DETROW: Blinken ended his day in Amman, Jordan, and he's heading back to Israel tomorrow. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been traveling with Blinken and is on the line. Michele, what did the secretary say about getting aid to Palestinians?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, he said that he had productive talks - that's how he described it - with Egypt's president about that. And he was sounding pretty confident that the Rafah Crossing - that's the border between Egypt and Gaza - will be open for aid to go in and for Palestinian Americans to get out as Israel prepares for an expected ground offensive in Gaza. He didn't mention any timeline for that, but there's obviously a lot of urgency here. The secretary has tapped a retired diplomat with a lot of experience in the region. His name is David Satterfield, who's going to oversee this. He's going to be joining the secretary in Israel tomorrow and will also have to work with the Egyptians and with U.N. agencies to kind of get things moving.

You know, over the weekend, Scott, the U.S. had told Palestinian Americans to head to the Rafah Border Crossing. So many are anxious to really get out. Gaza is a very small and very crowded territory, and it's been under heavy bombardment ever since last week, when Hamas launched that unprecedented attack on Israel.

DETROW: What has Blinken's message been, given how different that attack seemed and how the scale of everything seems different because of that in this current conflict?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he's telling everyone in the region that there's no more business as usual with Hamas. He's comparing Hamas to ISIS, and he's pushing U.S. partners in this region to condemn the Palestinian militants and use any influence they have to press Hamas to release hostages, including, by the way, some Americans. U.S. officials privately say that no one in the countries that he visited really supports Hamas, but in public, what we're hearing is a lot of concern about Israel's response and the rising Palestinian death toll.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, right in front of Blinken, called Israel's actions collective punishment against the Palestinians, and he said that's not acceptable. He also said that he opposes the forced displacement of Palestinians. Blinken, for his part, is saying, you know, well, Israel is justified in taking these actions against Hamas. He understands that they're - that the way that Israel goes about this will matter and matters certainly in this region.

DETROW: We heard Secretary Blinken mention he doesn't want this conflict to spread. What specifically is he worried about?

KELEMEN: Mainly Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon. That group has a lot of rockets that can reach much of Israel and a lot of fighters. Secretary Blinken says the main reason why the U.S. sent two large aircraft carrier battle groups to the region is because of that threat. Here's how he put it when he was speaking to us on the tarmac outside his plane in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: Not to provoke anyone but to send a very clear message of deterrence, that no one should do anything that widens this conflict in any way, or that furthers aggression against Israel from any other direction. So we've been clear about that.

DETROW: And lastly, we talked about Americans trying to get out of Gaza. There's also Americans trying to get out of Israel. Can you tell us about what the State Department is doing for them?

KELEMEN: Yeah. They sent word to American citizens that there's going to be, actually, a ship leaving the Israeli port of Haifa tomorrow, Monday, to go to Cyprus. It's open for U.S. passport holders and their immediate family members, and it's basically first come, first serve. There have also been some flights that the State Department has arranged over the weekend, and I'm sure there's going to be continued demand. There has been also some commercial flights out of Ben Gurion airport.

DETROW: That is NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, reporting from Amman, Jordan. Thank you so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.