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Israeli settlers try to block aid to Gaza as Blinken touts progress on trip to Israel

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Israeli settlers tried to block a new aid route into Gaza today, just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel. Jordan, which sent the aid, was furious with the Israeli government. The incident was a setback for Blinken, who was trying to highlight the progress in getting Palestinians the food and supplies that they need to stave off famine. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more on Blinken's latest trip.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A day after Blinken stood before pallets of food aid in Jordan touting a new direct aid route into Northern Gaza, Israeli settlers tried to block the convoy, dumping some of the supplies on the street and damaging the trucks, according to Jordanian officials. Israel arrested several settlers, and the trucks did get through the Erez Crossing. Secretary of State Blinken says, that's a big deal.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: That's very important because that's direct access to the north of Gaza. And this is the result of a very important collaboration involving Israel, involving Jordan, involving, as well, the United Nations.

KELEMEN: The secretary was speaking there at Ashdod Port. He also toured the Kerem Shalom crossing, climbing up some stairs to look over the massive concrete walls into Gaza.

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BLINKEN: We have seen in recent weeks real meaningful progress that is starting to make a difference for people in Gaza.

KELEMEN: As he began his day, dozens of Israelis gathered outside his hotel, calling for a hostage deal.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Bring them home now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Bring them home now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Bring them home now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Bring them home now.

KELEMEN: Blinken met with the family of American Keith Siegel, who was shown in a recent Hamas hostage video. His older brother Lee told NPR this week that the video was a window of hope.

LEE SIEGEL: It was an opportunity to see, hear and feel him. And, you know, he broke down during that. And for me, actually, that was a sign of, this is not some robot up there reading something off. Maybe he was forced to say some things, but he wasn't forced to break down.

KELEMEN: Lee Siegel is now calling on Israeli leaders to put politics aside and get a deal done.

SIEGEL: We want them to be elected as leaders and to show leadership and step outside the ugly, cruel world of politics and do the right thing. It's hard, but that's what needs to be done.

KELEMEN: Right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet are threatening to collapse the government if he reaches a cease-fire deal with Hamas. Secretary Blinken says he thinks Hamas is holding up negotiations.

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BLINKEN: This is something that the whole world is watching. And if Hamas actually purports to care about the Palestinian people and wants to see an immediate alleviation of their suffering, it will take the deal.

KELEMEN: He brushed off questions about whether Netanyahu is undermining negotiations by vowing to launch an assault on Rafah in Southern Gaza with or without a hostage deal. More than a million Palestinians are sheltering there. The U.S. opposes a Rafah operation, but Palestinian analysts and lawyer Diana Buttu says the U.S. should be doing much more to put the brakes on Israel in a war that has left much of Gaza in ruins.

DIANA BUTTU: We hear about a row here and a tough phone call there. But at the end of the day, all I see is dead bodies that are being uncovered in mass graves in Shifa and in other place - in other hospitals and the Biden administration just giving more weapons to Israel. That's what we see.

KELEMEN: Israel recently told the Biden administration that it's using U.S.-supplied weapons properly, but some U.S. aid officials have reportedly told Blinken that's not the case, that Israel is violating international humanitarian law. But Blinken made no mention of that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Tel Aviv. 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.