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Gaza: Blinken returns to Israel

TEL AVIV: Antony Blinken was back in Israel Tuesday (9th Jan, 2024) on a regional tour aimed at stopping the war escalating across the Middle East.

Intense bombing has been reported overnight in Khan Yunis and Rafah, the biggest cities in the south of the besieged Palestinian territory which are crowded with internally displaced people.

The army said its forces had killed 40 fighters over the past 24 hours in “expanded ground operations including air strikes” in Khan Yunis, and that troops had also seized AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and other weapons.

Since the war broke out with the fighter group attack of 7 October, fears have grown of an escalating conflict between Israel and its other regional enemies.

Israel has traded cross-border fire with fighters for three months and more recently killed senior operatives of the armed group as well as of fighters on Lebanese soil, sparking anger and threats of retaliation.

The Israeli army also said Monday it had killed a “central” fighter figure in Syria, Hassan Akasha, who had led cells which fired rockets… toward Israeli territory”.

The US secretary of state – on his fourth Middle East tour since the war broke out – was back in Israel on Tuesday to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet, including opposition figure Benny Gantz.

Blinken pointed at “the incredibly challenging times for Israel”, the fate of hostages remaining in Gaza and “the relentless efforts to bring everyone home”, after talks with President Isaac Herzog.

He also voiced hope that, after the war, Israel could push on with its efforts toward regional integration, following its US-brokered normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other states.

“I think there actually are real opportunities but we have to get through this very challenging moment,” Blinken said after meeting Foreign Minister Israel Katz on the latest leg of a tour that has already taken him to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after gunmen launched their 7 October attack that resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel.

Israel has responded to the deadliest attack in its history with relentless bombardment, a siege and then a ground invasion of Gaza that have killed at least 23,210 people, mostly women and children, according to the Palestinian people-run territory’s health ministry.

The Israeli army says 180 of its soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

A fighter leader Ismail Haniyeh, speaking in Qatar on Tuesday, argued that the 7 October attack “came after an attempt to marginalize the Palestinian cause”.

He charged that, “despite the heavy price, the massacres and the war of genocide, it (Israel) failed to achieve any of its goals.”

In further comments, released later by fighter group in Gaza, he called on Muslim states “to support the resistance, because this is… not the battle of the Palestinian people alone”.

The war has reduced vast areas of Gaza to rubble and displaced most of its 2.4 million people with many at risk of famine and disease, according to the United Nations.

With only minimal aid entering Gaza, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem charged that “everyone in Gaza is going hungry” as the “direct result of Israel’s declared policy”.

Washington has said Blinken will press Israel on its compliance with international humanitarian law and ask for “immediate measures” to boost aid into Gaza, where relief has arrived only in sporadic convoys.

US President Joe Biden said Monday he had been “quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce” their troop presence in Gaza.

The Israeli army has claimed to have largely achieved military control over northern Gaza, and said that the war is now entering a new phase.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari, speaking to The New York Times, said the next phase would involve fewer soldiers and air strikes and that a troop reduction had already begun this month.

Hagari alluded to the transition in his nightly briefing on Monday, saying that “while there are still fighters and weapons in the north, they are no longer functioning within an organised military framework”.

But he also acknowledged there were tough “battles being fought both in the centre and the south” of Gaza, where intense urban combat and house-to-house fighting have raged for weeks.

The United Nations said it was “very concerned by the high death toll of media workers” in Gaza, a day after a strike killed two journalists of the Al Jazeera network, including the son of Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh.

Violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli police confirmed three people were killed Monday during a raid on Tulkarem to arrest a “wanted fighter”.

Israeli army raids and settler attacks in the West Bank have killed at least 333 people since October 7, according to the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry.