UPDATED: Gaza ceasefire holding, Blinken to visit Israel, West Bank

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A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas-led Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip held into Saturday as officials said Egyptian mediators conferred with the sides on securing longer-term calm.

The ceasefire began before dawn on Friday, ending 11 days of cross-border shelling exchanges that caused fresh devastation in Gaza, shook up Israel and raised international concern about a slide into wider regional conflict.

Egypt, which mediated the halt to the fighting with U.S. support, sent a delegation to Israel at around noon on Friday to discuss ways of firming up the ceasefire, including with aid for Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas officials told Reuters.

The delegates have since been shuttling between Israel and Gaza, with talks continuing on Saturday, the officials said.

Despite confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at a Jerusalem holy site on Friday, there were no reports of Hamas rocket launches from Gaza or Israeli military strikes on the enclave as of Saturday morning.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Washington would work with the United Nations on bringing humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Gaza, with safeguards against funds being used to arm Hamas, which the West deems a terrorist group.

Gaza medical officials put the Palestinian death toll from Israeli air and artillery strikes at 248, including 66 children.

Israel said its forces killed more than 200 fighters from Hamas and allied faction Islamic Jihad, and that at least 17 civilian fatalities in Gaza were caused by militants’ rockets falling short.

Palestinian attacks killed 13 people in Israel, including two children, a soldier and three foreign workers, medics said.

Blinken to visit Israel, West Bank on May 26-27

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday and Thursday as part of Washington’s efforts to build on the Gaza truce, a source briefed on the planning said on Saturday.

U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials have not published Blinken’s full itinerary. The State Department announced his visit on Thursday, saying he would “discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians”.

Blinken’s Middle East trip would include visit to Egypt, which mediated the Gaza truce between Israel and Hamas-led Palestinian militants, as well as to Jordan, the source said. 

Photo: A Palestinian boy sits over the rubble of family’s destroyed house after a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza fighters, in Beit Hanun town northern Gaza Strip. EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER