Middle East Crisis: Blinken Arrives in Mideast to Rally Support for Cease-Fire Plan

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Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Monday.Credit…Pool photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrived in the Middle East on Monday in the hopes of preventing escalating tit-for-tat attacks with Iran-backed militias from spiraling into a broader regional war, and to rally allies around a proposed cease-fire agreement for Gaza.

Mr. Blinken began his fifth trip to the region since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel by meeting in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, discussing how to achieve “an enduring end to the crisis in Gaza,” as well as the need to reduce tensions across the region, according to a State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller.

The secretary of state is also scheduled hold meetings with leaders in Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank — all key players in negotiations over a potential pause in the fighting in Gaza.

The Biden administration and its Arab allies are still awaiting a response from Hamas to a framework for a deal that would involve the exchange of more than 100 Israeli hostages held in Gaza for a pause in fighting and the release of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail the diplomatic efforts, said Mr. Blinken would tell American allies in the region that the Biden administration’s recent strikes against Iran-backed militias should not be interpreted as an escalation of fighting in the Middle East.

American and British warplanes, with support from allies, have carried out a series of airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen in an effort to deter the group from attacking ships in the Red Sea.

Mr. Miller said Mr. Blinken and the crown prince discussed the “urgent need to reduce regional tensions,” citing the Houthi attacks from Yemen that are undermining freedom of navigation.

The U.S. has also conducted dozens of military strikes in recent days on targets in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the killing of three U.S. service members at a base near the Syrian border in Jordan.

Those strikes prompted Russia to call for an “urgent” meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which was scheduled to convene on Monday afternoon. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, accused the United States on Saturday of further escalating conflict in the Middle East, saying the strikes demonstrated the “aggressive nature of U.S. policy” in the region.

In his conversation with Prince Mohammed, Mr. Blinken stressed the importance of addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Mr. Miller said. More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed there since Oct. 7, according to the Gazan health ministry, and nearly two million people have been displaced by the fighting.

Mr. Blinken was expected to convey American concerns about the civilian death toll in Gaza when he visits Israel on this trip.

Mr. Blinken will also discuss what diplomats call the “day-after” plans for governing Gaza after the fighting ends, including a possible role for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Biden administration is also hoping to make progress toward getting Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a long-term objective that the United States sees as important to stabilizing the Middle East. Under a proposed deal, the United States would offer Saudi Arabia a defense treaty, help with a civilian nuclear program and increase arms sales, while the Saudis and Americans would, in theory, get Israel to accept conditions for concrete steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state in return for Saudi recognition.

Mr. Miller’s account of the meeting between Mr. Blinken and Prince Mohammed did not contain any specific references to such efforts, but said the two had discussed “building a more integrated and prosperous region and reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia


A destroyed building in Rafah, Gaza, on Sunday.Credit…Haitham Imad/EPA, via Shutterstock

Israel was waiting on Monday for Hamas officials to respond to a proposal to pause the fighting in the Gaza Strip and release the remaining hostages there, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken returned to the region seeking to rally support for such a deal.

A broadcaster affiliated with Hamas, Al-Aqsa, reported on Sunday that Hamas was still holding consultations on the proposal, a week after it was formulated. Leaders of the group had previously signaled that substantial gaps remained between the two sides, even as representatives from the United States, Egypt and Qatar sought common ground.

Mr. Blinken, who landed in Saudi Arabia on Monday afternoon, is hoping to advance talks on the framework of an agreement to halt the fighting in Gaza and return hostages that have been held there for nearly four months.

Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that “the ball is in Hamas’s court.”

A deal that would release hostages, pause fighting and allow humanitarian aid to reach Gaza is of “paramount” importance, he added.

“We’re going to press for it relentlessly, as the president has done, including recently in calls with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, the two countries that are our central brokers in this effort,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7, during which Israeli officials have said about 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 others taken hostage, ignited a war with Israel and touched off a wider crisis in the Middle East. Israel has traded fire with members of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthi militia that controls part of Yemen has fired on ships traveling to and from the Suez Canal.

Other Iran-backed militants have launched attacks against U.S. bases in the region, including one recently that the Biden administration said killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan.

The United States has responded to the Houthi attacks with repeated strikes, including on Sunday, and to the Jordan attack with a separate series of military strikes this weekend against Iranian forces and the militias they support at seven sites in Syria and Iraq. Top U.S. national security officials said on Sunday that further retaliation against Iran-backed militias was still planned.

But Mr. Sullivan said he believed those efforts were a separate issue from the talks intended to reach a cease-fire deal that has eluded both sides since a one-week pause in November.

“We believe that the steps that we took on Friday and the steps we took against the Houthis last night are not connected to the hostage negotiations,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And we believe that now, at this point, it’s up to Hamas to come forward and respond to what is a serious proposal.”


The Ahmed Abdel Aziz School, which is affiliated with UNRWA, in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, in October.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main aid agency in Gaza, is set to lose $65 million by the end of February as donors’ funding cuts begin to kick in, according to internal accounting documents reviewed by The New York Times.

At least 18 states or institutions, including many of the agency’s biggest funders, announced they were suspending their donations to the agency, known as UNRWA, after accusations emerged last month that several employees participated in the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Some of those suspensions will take time to take effect. Countries deliver their donations at intervals throughout the year, and some of the countries were not scheduled to make their payments for several months. For example, the United States had already made the first of its three installments in January, and the second U.S. payment is not due until May, according to the documents.

But Finland missed a payment of $5.4 million in January, and three more countries — Germany, Japan and Sweden — are set to miss payments throughout February that are collectively worth almost $60 million.

Because UNRWA has no significant reserves, the shortfall means the agency will have no funds of its own in March to pay its 30,000 workers across the Middle East, of which 13,000 are in Gaza, according to Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman for UNRWA.

The agency could bridge the gap by applying for a loan from a centralized U.N. reserve, Ms. Alrifai said.

UNRWA’s operation plays a critical role in the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. More than 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.2 million people have been displaced by the war, and more than half of the population are now sheltering in repurposed schools and centers run by the agency.

UNRWA also oversees the distribution of the meager supplies of aid that arrive each day to Gaza by truck. Already, aid agencies are warning of famine amid profound food shortages and the collapse of the health care system.

Since donor states began suspending their funds, the agency has received an unusually high number of private donations from individual citizens seeking to fill the void. In the five days after the allegations surfaced, Ms. Alrifai said, UNRWA received roughly $5 million from private donors — more than the agency would typically receive from individuals during any single month.

But the donations are not enough to fund the agency for more than a few days: It has an annual budget of more than $1.5 billion, Ms. Alrifai said.


Israelis demonstrate outside the UNRWA offices in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit…Ammar Awad/Reuters

The United Nations on Monday named the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to head an independent investigation into the conduct of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, in the aftermath of Israeli allegations that 12 members of the agency’s staff in Gaza participated in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks.

The independent investigation is to run parallel to the U.N.’s internal investigation into the conduct of the accused workers at UNRWA, which plays a crucial role in providing shelter and aid supplies to displaced Gazans.

Ms. Colonna, who stepped down as foreign minister last month, will work with three Scandinavian groups to examine how UNRWA works and whether it needs to strengthen its methods or adopt new ones for “ensuring neutrality,” according to an announcement by the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres. That is likely to include how it vets and monitors its 13,000 workers in Gaza to be sure they are not combatants.

The agency has said that nine of the employees were fired and two were dead. The U.N. has said the accused could face criminal charges.

The Scandinavian groups are the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. The investigators, collectively known as the Review Group, are to begin work on Feb. 14 and are expected to deliver an interim report to Mr. Guterres by late March and a final report in late April, which will be made public, the U.N. said.

The accusations against the 12 UNRWA staff members, based on Israeli intelligence gathered from their phones, led the United States, followed by more than a dozen other countries, to announce the suspension of funding to the agency while the U.N. investigated. It is set to lose $65 million by the end of February as funding cuts begin to kick in, according to internal accounting documents reviewed by The New York Times.

Mr. Guterres and other senior U.N. officials, including Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, have warned that defunding the agency threatens the delivery of crucial aid to 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza. They say that most of the population is displaced, at the brink of starvation and living in an active war zone, in what Mr. Guterres described as “one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world.” UNRWA says that nearly a million people are sheltering in or near its facilities.

Vedant Patel, the deputy State Department spokesman, said that the Biden administration was “looking at what options exist for supporting civilians in Gaza through partners like the World Food Program, UNICEF” and other nongovernmental organizations. Mr. Patel noted that of $10 billion earmarked for humanitarian assistance in a supplemental spending bill crafted by Senate negotiators, the department expected $1.4 billion to be allocated to Gaza.

But eight major international aid agencies, including Mercy Corps, Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee, said in a joint statement on Monday that no other aid agency could “replicate UNRWA’s central role in the humanitarian response in Gaza” and noted that “amid the current crisis, many will struggle to even maintain their current operations without UNRWA’s partnership and support.” The statement urged the donors to resume their funding.

Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.


An Israeli soldier stopping a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance in Tulkarem, in the occupied West Bank, last month.Credit…Marco Longari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Amnesty International said on Monday that Israeli forces were killing Palestinians in the West Bank with “near total impunity” as the world’s attention focused on Gaza, demanding in a new report that the International Criminal Court step up its investigation into Israel’s conduct in the Israeli-occupied area.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces have used live fire to disperse Palestinian protests, attacked people trying to help the injured and carried out deadly arrest raids that have spread fear throughout Palestinian communities, Amnesty International said in its report. It said the Israeli forces’ actions add to the country’s “well-documented track record of using excessive and often lethal force to stifle dissent and enforce its system of apartheid against Palestinians.”

The human rights organization said that Israel’s use of unlawful force in the West Bank had sharply escalated since Oct. 7, when a Hamas-led attack from Gaza killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health officials there.

The Israeli military has described its actions in the West Bank as counterterrorism efforts necessary to prevent further attacks. Israel has strongly denied prior accusations that it has committed the crime of apartheid.

Israeli military operations have raised alarms from several human rights groups, including the United Nations human rights office, which called in December for Israel to “end unlawful killings” of Palestinians in the West Bank and to immediately stop the use of “military weapons and means during law enforcement operations.”

Since Oct. 7, Israeli forces in the West Bank have killed at least 360 Palestinians and injured 4,270, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Sunday. Last year was the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank since the office began recording casualties in 2005, and about 70 percent of those killings were reported during Israeli military operations, O.C.H.A. has said.

Amnesty’s report detailed its investigations into four incidents that it said were emblematic of the recent escalation, and renewed its call for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, to take action. In 2021, the I.C.C. opened an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Israeli-occupied areas, but many Palestinian groups have criticized the pace and focus of the inquiry.

Amnesty’s director for global research and policy, Erika Guevara-Rosas, called for Mr. Khan to investigate the killings in the West Bank as possible war crimes, saying in the report thatan international justice system worth its salt must step in.”


A destroyed house in the in Tulkarm, in the occupied West Bank, last month.Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock


The funeral last month of Ahmed and Jalal Jabarin, who were shot dead by Israeli troops when their car broke through a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron.Credit…Marco Longari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Among the incidents investigated by Amnesty was an Israeli raid that began on Oct. 19 and lasted more than 24 hours in Nur Shams, an area that originated decades ago as a refugee camp for Palestinians displaced in the wars surrounding the founding of Israel. Israeli forces killed 13 Palestinians during the raid, including six children, according to Amnesty and Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.

One of those killed during the raid, Amnesty said, was Taha Mahamid, an unarmed 15-year-old shot by Israeli forces when he peeked out of his house to see if they had left the area. His father was shot and seriously injured when he went to retrieve Taha’s body, and the family’s home was raided by Israeli forces about 12 hours later, Amnesty said.

One of Taha’s sisters told Amnesty investigators that her brother was shot in the leg, then in his stomach, then in his eye.

“They did not give him a chance,” the human rights group quoted her as saying. “In an instant, my brother was eliminated.”


At the U.N. Security Council on Monday, China’s ambassador, Zhang Jun, broadly accused the United States of using excessive force around the world and manipulating public opinion about its intentions. Credit…Eduardo Munoz/EPA, via Shutterstock

Russia and China used an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday to sharply criticize recent U.S.-led retaliatory strikes on Iraq and Syria, calling the military action a violation of the territorial integrity of those countries that would further destabilize the Middle East.

U.S. tensions with Russia have been high since that country’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, ordered his forces to invade Ukraine almost two years ago. The Security Council has frequently been a platform for U.S. and Russia’s spats over Ukraine, Syria and, most recently, the war in Gaza.

China has sided with Russia on those issues and maintained a consistent policy of denouncing actions that undermine a country’s sovereignty, even as its own territorial aspirations have drawn increasing U.S. opposition. In the conflicts in the Middle East, China has close ties to many of the key actors, including Russia and Iran.

Russia requested the emergency meeting, which focused on three days of American strikes that started on Friday, aimed at what the United States said were targets linked to militias backed by Iran. The U.S. strikes followed what the Pentagon said had been more than 160 attacks on American forces in the region during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, including one on Jan. 28 that killed three U.S. soldiers at an outpost in Jordan.

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, called the strikes “another unlawful and irresponsible act of the United States in the region of Middle East” and said the country wanted to draw bigger adversaries, like Iraq and Iran, into war. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is seeking to avoid such an expansion of hostilities, and has forecast its strikes to minimize casualties.

Mr. Nebenzya also sought to connect the strikes to the U.S. election year, saying, “We see in these ‘flex their muscles’ attempts, first of all, a desire to influence domestic political landscape in America, a desire to somehow correct the disastrous image of the current American administration on the international arena as the presidential election campaign is heating up.”

Robert Wood, a U.S. ambassador, defended the military’s actions as “necessary and proportionate” and in line with both international law and the right to self-defense. The killing of American soldiers by Iran-backed militia, he said, “was unacceptable, and attacks like this cannot continue.”

Mr. Wood blamed Iran for enabling the network of militia in the region that has opened fronts against Israel during the war in Gaza, launching near-daily attacks on U.S. soldiers and disrupting shipping in the Red Sea, a key conduit in global trade.

He urged countries with connections to Iran press it to rein in its regional proxy militias. And he said the U.S. strikes on the militias’ command and intelligence bases and logistic and supply chains had successfully degraded their capabilities.

Representatives of Syria, Iraq and Iran also condemned the U.S. strikes, saying that, in contrast to the stated U.S. aims, they had killed civilians.

China backed that criticism. “The security of one country can’t be achieved at the expense of another country,” said Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., broadly accusing the United States of using excessive force around the world and manipulating public opinion about its intentions.

And Iran’s ambassador to the body, Saeid Iravani, rejected the idea that Iran has military bases in Iraq and Syria or commands proxy militias, despite significant evidence to the contrary. He eventually took a conciliatory tone, reflecting comments from Tehran that have stopped short of threatening revenge for the strikes.

“Iran has never sought to bring its dispute with the United States into Iraq’s territory,” Mr. Iravani told the Council, reiterating Iran’s stance that it does not seek a war with the United States.

Many Council members repeated their calls for an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, which has killed more than 27,000 people, according to the health authorities in Gaza, and has destabilized the region. Efforts to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire have garnered wide support at the U.N. and at the Council, but have been blocked by the United States, which as a permanent member of the Security Council wields veto power. Algeria, the only Arab member of the Council, has drafted a new resolution calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. Its terms are still under negotiation.

The U.N.’s top political chief, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the Council that, after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 set off the war in Gaza, the risk of a wider conflict was obvious. The attacks killed 1,200 people and led to the abduction to Gaza of 240 others, Israeli officials said.

She cautioned all sides “to step back from the brink and to consider the unbearable human and economic cost of a potential regional conflict.”


Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, speaking to reporters on Monday.Credit…Kevin Wolf/Associated Press

American warplanes destroyed or severely damaged most of the Iranian and militia targets they struck in Syria and Iraq on Friday, according to the Pentagon, the first major salvos in what President Biden and his aides have said will be a sustained campaign.

Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Monday that “more than 80” of some 85 targets in Syria and Iraq were destroyed or rendered inoperable. The targets, he said, included command hubs; intelligence centers; depots for rockets, missiles and attack drones; as well as logistics and ammunition bunkers.

It was the first military assessment of the strikes carried out in response to a drone attack in Jordan by an Iran-backed militia in Iraq on Jan. 28 that killed three American soldiers and injured at least 40 more service members.

“This is the start of our response, and there will be additional actions taken,” General Ryder told reporters without elaborating. “We do not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else, but attacks on American forces will not be tolerated.”

But the assessment also shows the limits of the American campaign so far. In particular, U.S. officials acknowledge that the militias targeted still retain the majority of their capability to carry out future attacks.

There were no initial indications that Iranian advisers were killed in the strikes on Friday, military officials said, but General Ryder said there probably were casualties. Syria and Iraq have said that at least 39 people — 23 in Syria and 16 in Iraq — were killed in the Friday strikes, a toll that the Iraqi government said included civilians.

The attacks in the two countries, as well as U.S.-led strikes on Saturday against 36 Houthi targets in northern Yemen, have edged the region closer to a broader conflict even as the administration insists it does not want war with Iran. Instead, U.S. officials say they are focused on whittling away the militias’ formidable arsenals and deterring additional attacks against U.S. troops, as well as merchant ships in the Red Sea.


Rubble of a destroyed building in Al-Qaim, Iraq, after a U.S. airstrike.Credit…Reuters

The militias seem undeterred, however. Hours after the strikes on Friday, an Iran-backed militia fired two rockets at a U.S. military outpost in northeastern Syria where troops are helping stamp out the remnants of the Islamic State. On Sunday, an explosives-laden drone was fired at another U.S. outpost in northeastern Syria. The rockets caused no damage or American injuries, the Pentagon said. On Sunday, the military’s Central Command said U.S. forces destroyed five Houthi land-based and anti-ship cruise missiles that posed an imminent threat.

On Monday, U.S. forces carried out a strike against two explosives-laden naval drones that Central Command said posed an imminent threat to ships in the region.

Overall, Iran-backed militias have carried out at least 166 drone, rocket and missile attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that killed 1,200 people in Israel. The Houthis have conducted at least three dozen attacks against ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The militia says its attacks are in solidarity with Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas.

National security experts and officials say privately that to truly degrade the capability of the Shiite militias, the United States would have to carry out a yearslong campaign similar to the six-year effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Even then, the officials say, the militias, with Iran’s backing, could probably survive longer than the Islamic State, which was pressured by the United States and Iran, and even Russia.

American officials over the weekend and on Monday warned that more strikes were in store in what is emerging as an open-ended campaign not just in Yemen — where the United States and Britain first launched major retaliatory strikes on Jan. 11 — but now also in Syria and Iraq to avenge the deaths of the three Army reservists, who were killed at a remote supply base.

“The president was clear when he ordered them and when he conducted them that that was the beginning of our response and there will be more steps to come,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, speaking about the strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Sullivan said he did not want to “telegraph our punches” by revealing details of future action. But he said that the goal was to punish those targeting Americans without setting off a direct confrontation with Iran.

Analysts say there are already signs that the most recent strikes are having an impact in Tehran, where a widely unpopular government already struggling with a weak economy, outbursts of mass protest and terrorism has little appetite for an all-out war with the United States.

But regional specialists say reining in Iran’s proxies, which rely on Tehran for weapons, intelligence and financing, may prove more difficult.

“Around 2020, Iran began to give blanket clearance to these groups to attack United States positions in Iraq and Syria,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a retired head of U.S. Central Command, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “They have the opportunity to generate these attacks without directly going back to Iran.”

A major question for Mr. Biden and his national security aides is what additional targets in Iraq and Syria could be struck.

On Friday, American B-1B bombers and other warplanes hit targets at four sites in Syria and three sites in Iraq in a 30-minute attack, U.S. officials said. John F. Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said the targets at each site were picked because they were linked to specific attacks against U.S. troops in the region, and to avoid civilian casualties.

By avoiding targets in Iran, the White House and Central Command are trying to send a message of deterrence while controlling escalation, U.S. officials said. It is clear from statements from the White House and from Tehran that neither side wants a wider war. But, as the strike in Jordan showed, with any military action comes the chance of miscalculation.

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

Eric Schmitt Reporting from Washington


Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been backed by U.S. forces in eastern Syria.Credit…Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A drone attacked a base that houses American and allied troops in eastern Syria early Monday morning, killing six Kurdish fighters, according to the official news media outlet of the Kurdish-led group that shares the base with U.S. forces.

Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday that there were no reported injuries to American troops in the attack.

The Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, blamed the attack on a militia group linked to Iran, which would make it the latest in a series of escalatory clashes between Iran-backed militias and the United States and its allies since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas.

Militant groups funded, armed and supported by Iran have carried out dozens of attacks on U.S. military bases and troops in Iraq and Syria over the last few months, as well as on U.S.-owned ships in the Red Sea. The United States and its allies have retaliated with several rounds of airstrikes, including some over the weekend on targets in Yemen related to the ship attacks and Friday on targets in Syria and Iraq in response to a drone attack that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan.

U.S. officials say they do not want direct confrontation with Iran, while analysts and American officials have assessed that Iran — which exercises varying degrees of control over the armed groups it supports around the region — is also trying to avoid a war with a much larger power.

“We are not looking for the escalation of tension in the region,” Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, said on Monday. Iran did not specifically address the drone strike, in keeping with its usual practice over the actions taken by the groups it supports.

But analysts have warned that both sides risk the tit-for-tat attacks spiraling out of control. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, struck a defiant tone over the recent tensions on Friday, saying that Iran’s strength was deterring outright attacks.

“If the oppressive and bullying force wants to bully, the Islamic Republic will give him a strong answer,” he said during a speech in the Iranian city of Minab, according to state news media.

The Syrian Democratic Forces said that the drone attack on Monday had targeted a training area at a base in the Al-Omar oil field in Deir al Zour, a province in eastern Syria.

For the last decade, the group, which consists of fighters from the local Kurdish ethnic minority, has operated in eastern Syria with support from a U.S.-led international coalition that needed a local partner to battle the Islamic State group. Though ISIS has been largely defeated there, a limited number of American troops remain on the ground.

North Press, the Kurdish group’s official news media outlet, said a number of fighters were injured in Monday’s attack in addition to the six who died.

An Israeli bank has frozen two accounts belonging to an Israeli settler targeted by American sanctions for his alleged involvement in violent attacks on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, the man told Israeli news media on Monday.

The account by the settler, Yinon Levi, 31, prompted outrage from the Israel right after he and three other Israelis were the subject of an executive order by President Biden last week intended to crack down on “high levels of extremist settler violence.” The State Department accused Mr. Levi of assaulting Palestinian civilians, burning fields and destroying property, all of which he denied in a radio interview on Monday.

On Friday, Mr. Levi’s Israeli bank, Bank Leumi, informed him that his accounts had been frozen, he said in the interview with Israel’s public broadcaster. On Sunday, the bank canceled transfers to his brother’s account that Mr. Levi attempted to carry out, he added.

A spokesman for Bank Leumi declined to comment. Israel’s central bank said Israel’s financial system was bound by standard protocols “regarding the use of international sanction lists and national sanction lists of foreign countries.”

“Evading such sanctions regimes can expose the banking corporations to significant risks,” the Bank of Israel said in a statement.

Under Mr. Biden’s order, the four settlers would have their assets frozen, and institutions would be barred from transferring them funds. The order, the Biden administration’s strongest diplomatic response yet to the settlers accused of such attacks, capped years of rising American frustration toward violent action by Jewish extremists in the occupied West Bank.

Politicians in Israel’s right-wing governing coalition — which includes top settler leaders — responded angrily to the freezing of Mr. Levi’s accounts. Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said he was holding talks with regulators intended to ensure that Israeli citizens facing sanctions under the U.S. order would be able to access assets in Israel.

“It cannot be that Israeli banks will have to place sanctions on Israeli citizens because of an American order,” Mr. Smotrich told reporters on Monday, calling it a violation of Israeli sovereignty. “We will not let this slide by.”


A couple in a field of red anemones near Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel, near the border with Gaza, in 2018.Credit…Uriel Sinai for The New York Times

The red anemones that carpet the fields and forests of a strip of southern Israel along the Gaza border this time of year usually draw multitudes. Day-trippers typically flock to a monthlong nature festival there known as Red South.

But on Friday, organizers abruptly canceled most of the festival events just as they were about to begin, after criticism from residents of the border communities that were worst hit by the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7. Thousands of border residents are still displaced from their homes, many are still in mourning over the attacks that Israeli officials said killed about 1,200 people, and some fear for the fate of relatives who were abducted to Gaza on Oct. 7 and are still being held hostage.

“One could write countless clichés about blood and land, about returning, blooming and growth,” one resident of the border area, Bar Heffetz, wrote in a Facebook post on Jan. 30, days before the decision to cancel. But when he saw the signs and toilets for visitors going up in the forests, he said he had two words to share: “Don’t come.”

“To make a picnic here is like having a party in your neighbor’s home while he is in the hospital in intensive care, like invading a place when the hosts are absent,” he wrote.

The organizers — a local tourism board working with several regional councils and the Jewish National Fund, a forestry and land development organization — had planned a limited, lower-key version of Red South for the weekends of February, mindful of the sensitivities as well as the continued risk of rocket fire from Gaza, where Israel is waging war against Hamas. The military had issued instructions and a map for the public marking the roads closest to the border as off-limits.

One event still scheduled to take place is an organized march through the anemone fields on Feb. 16 in memory of Ofir Libstein, a regional council head and a founder of Red South who was shot and killed on Oct. 7 when he left his house to try to defend his village, Kfar Aza.

“We are attentive to, and share in, the pain of the residents of the area,” the organizers said in a statement on Friday announcing the cancellations. They said that events including guided hikes, a footrace dedicated to the hostages and an agricultural fair had been called off, but added that local businesses that had reopened would still welcome visitors who arrive independently.

Isabel Kershner reporting from Jerusalem


The rubble of a destroyed building in Al-Qaim, Iraq, on Saturday after a U.S. airstrike the night before.Credit…Reuters

The United States has led a major wave of retaliatory strikes in the Middle East, hitting scores of targets belonging to Iranian-backed armed groups since Friday. The strikes are a sharp escalation of hostilities in the region, one that President Biden had sought to avoid since the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza began in October.

Here is how the latest strikes have unfolded.

Jan. 28: Three U.S. service members were killed and dozens of others were injured in a drone attack on their remote military outpost in Jordan, the Pentagon said. They were the first known American military fatalities from hostile fire in the Middle East since October, when regional tensions rose with the start of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

The Biden administration said the drone had been launched by an Iran-backed militia from Iraq, and Mr. Biden pledged to respond. The U.S. has blamed Iranian-backed armed groups for launching more than 150 attacks since October on U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East.

Jan. 30: Mr. Biden said he had decided on a response to the attack in Jordan, but did not say what it would be. Some Republican lawmakers called for a direct strike against Iran, but Mr. Biden’s advisers said he was determined to avoid a wider regional conflict.

Friday: The United States carried out airstrikes on more than 85 targets in Syria and Iraq, aiming at Iranian-backed forces including the group it said was responsible for the Jordan strike. The Pentagon said the strikes targeted command and control operations, intelligence centers, weapons facilities and bunkers used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force and affiliated militia groups.

Afterward, U.S. officials said that Mr. Biden had not seriously considered striking inside Iran, and that by targeting facilities used by the powerful Quds Force, while not trying to take out its leadership, the United States sought to signal that it did not want all-out war.

Saturday: American and British warplanes, with support from six allies, launched strikes at dozens of sites in Yemen controlled by Houthi militants. A joint statement from the allies said that the targets included weapons storage facilities, missile launchers, air defense systems and radars, and that the strikes were intended to deter the Houthis’ attacks on Red Sea shipping.

Sunday: Shortly after the Houthis said they would respond to the U.S. and British strikes, American forces said they had carried out another attack on the group, destroying a cruise missile that had posed “an imminent threat to U.S. Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region.”


John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, at the White House last month.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Top U.S. national security officials said Sunday that President Biden had ordered further retaliation to the killings of three service members by Iran-backed militias, but declined to say when or how it would be carried out.

The officials’ comments followed dozens of military strikes on Friday by U.S. forces on targets in Iraq and Syria. Officials said they were still assessing the effects of those strikes, but they believed they had degraded the ability of the militias to attack U.S. forces.

“The president was clear when he ordered them and when he conducted them that that was the beginning of our response and there will be more steps to come,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Mr. Sullivan said he did not want to “telegraph our punches” by revealing details of future action. And, he added, the president was trying to calibrate his responses to avoid a sharp escalation of the fighting in the Middle East.

Iran has repeatedly asserted that it does not want a direct conflict with the United States, but that it would respond if attacked.

“Iran is not seeking to increase the tension and crisis in the region — we don’t support tension and chaos,” the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said on Monday. “Iran has shown that it will react forcefully to any threats against its sovereignty and will not hesitate to deploy all its capabilities for a reply that will bring them regret.”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, rejected criticism from Republican lawmakers who have accused the administration of waiting too long — nearly a week — after the three service members were killed by a drone attack at a base in Jordan, near the border with Syria.

“You want to do this in a deliberate way,” Mr. Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.” “You want to carefully select your targets. You want to make sure that all the parameters are in place to have good effects, including factoring in the weather. I mean, these attacks were using manned aircraft. You want to make sure your pilots can get in and get out safely.”

Mr. Kirby also rejected calls from some lawmakers in both parties for the president to request specific authorization from Congress — which has the constitutional power to declare war — before continuing with military actions in the Middle East.

Mr. Kirby cited the president’s role as detailed in the Constitution.

“The president is acting consistent with his Article Two responsibilities as commander in chief,” he said. “These are self-defense actions that we’re taking to prevent and to take away capability from these groups from targeting our troops and our facilities.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.

Michael D. Shear reporting from Washington

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