GAZA/TEL AVIV/CAIRO, Jan 9 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his latest mission to rein in the Gaza war, told Israeli leaders on Tuesday there was still a chance of winning acceptance from their Arab neighbours, if they create a path to a viable Palestinian state.
On his fourth trip to the region since October in a so far largely fruitless quest to tamp down the violence, Blinken said he would share what he had heard in two days of talks with Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Blinken met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was then due to speak with members of the war cabinet formed in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Palestinian Hamas militants, which Israel says killed 1,200 people.
The Israeli offensive has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, destroyed much of Gaza and displaced most of the population of 2.3 million at least once, creating a dramatic and worsening humanitarian crisis.
Blinken had already said he would press Israel on the “absolute imperative” to do more to protect Gaza’s civilians and allow humanitarian aid to reach them. His boss, President Joe Biden, said overnight that Washington was quietly pushing Israel to begin withdrawing some forces.
Blinken’s meetings around the region have focused on seeking a longer-term approach to the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict, as part of a path toward ending the Gaza war. After his meetings with Arab allies, he said they wanted integration with Israel – also a long-term Israeli aim – but only if that included a “practical pathway” to a Palestinian state.
“I think there are actually real opportunities there,” he told his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz on Tuesday.
“But we have to get through this very challenging moment and ensure that October 7 can never happen again and work to build a much different and much better future.”
HEAVY FIGHTING IN SOUTH GAZA
After weeks of U.S. pressure to ease its assault, Israel says its forces are moving from full-blown warfare to a more targeted campaign in northern Gaza, while maintaining intensive combat in southern areas.
It said its troops had killed around 40 Palestinian fighters and raided a militant compound and tunnel shafts since Monday in Khan Younis, the main city in the south.
After a week of comparatively low Israeli losses, Israel said nine of its soldiers had been killed in Gaza, mostly from engineering units operating against Hamas tunnels, in one of the deadliest days of the ground assault for Israeli forces. The deaths brought its total war losses to 187.
The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said 57 Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes and 65 wounded had arrived in the past 24 hours at the Al Aqsa hospital in the centre of the 45 km (28 mile) long Gaza Strip.
The vast humanitarian crisis has put pressure in particular on the United States, Israel’s closest ally, to press for the assault to be scaled back.
The U.N. humanitarian office OCHA said that “as casualties rise, the ability to treat them continues to be in jeopardy”.
It said three hospitals in central Gaza and Khan Younis, including Al Aqsa, were “at risk of closure due to the issuance of evacuation orders in nearby areas and the ongoing conduct of hostilities nearby”.
Sean Casey, World Health Organization Emergency Medical Teams coordinator in Gaza, said that “we are seeing the health system collapse at a very rapid pace”.
Medical staff and patients were fleeing for their lives, including an estimated 600 patients from one facility, and 66 health workers were in detention.
Only about a third of Gaza’s hospitals, all in southern and central Gaza, are still even partially functional.
Casey said many staff at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis had joined hundreds of thousands of other Gazans crowded into shelters in the strip’s southernmost tip, leaving just one doctor for more than 100 burn victims.
BIDEN HEARS SHOUTS OF ‘CEASEFIRE NOW’
Biden, confronted on Monday by protesters shouting “Ceasefire now!” while visiting a church in South Carolina, said he had been “quietly” working to encourage Israel to ease its attacks and “significantly get out of Gaza”.
Israel’s relentless bombardment and its restrictions on humanitarian access to Gaza have prompted South Africa to file a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of genocidal actions against Palestinians. Hearings begin on Thursday.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog told Blinken there was “nothing more atrocious and preposterous” than the court case, noting that Hamas, which rules Gaza, is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
The conflict has spread to Lebanon, where the Hezbollah militia has been firing rockets across the Israeli border in support of Hamas. Both groups are supported by Iran, Israel’s sworn enemy.
Three members of Hezbollah were killed on Tuesday in a strike on their vehicle in the south of Lebanon, two sources familiar with the group’s operations told Reuters, after a top Hezbollah commander was killed in the area on Monday.
Hezbollah said it had launched explosive drones at an army base in northern Israel in response to the killing of senior Hezbollah figure Wissam Tawil, and that of deputy Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut last week.
Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem said in an address that his group did not want to expand the war from Lebanon, “but if Israel expands (it), the response is inevitable to the maximum extent required to deter Israel”.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the assassinations. The army said an unspecified northern base had experienced an aerial attack without damage or casualties.