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Blinken starts Mideast tour to press for Gaza truce

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories, Feb 5, 2024 (Net) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ar-rived in Saudi Arabia on Monday for another Middle East crisis tour, hoping to secure a new truce in the Israel-Hamas war as Gaza saw no let-up in fighting.
On his fifth trip to the region since Hamas’s October 7 attack that triggered the war, Blinken landed in Riyadh and was later expected to visit Israel and mediators Egypt and Qatar.
Ahead of the trip he stressed the need for “urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza”, after aid groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the devastating impact nearly four months of war have had on the besieged Gaza Strip.
“The situation is indescribable,” said Said Hamouda, a Palestinian who fled his home to the southern Gaza city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.
Dubbed a “pressure cooker of despair” by the United Nations, Rafah now hosts more than half of Gaza’s population, displaced due to Israel’s assault.
Over the weekend, Israel pressed further south towards the densely-crowded border city, warning that its ground forces could advance on Rafah as part of the campaign to eradicate Hamas.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “a complete victory will deal a fatal blow” to Hamas but also to other Iran-backed militant groups across the region.
At least 128 people were killed in Israeli strikes overnight to Monday, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.
Witnesses told AFP they heard artillery shelling in the areas of eastern Rafah and Khan Yunis, where Israel believes high-ranking Hamas officials are hiding.
Hamas reported Israeli bombardment across the centre and south of the coastal strip, and the group’s armed wing said its militants attacked troops near Gaza City.
The Israeli military said forces in northern and central Gaza had killed “hundreds of terrorists” over the past week, and were engaging with Hamas militants in the Khan Yunis.
– Diplomatic push –
Blinken is expected to discuss a truce framework not yet signed off on by either Hamas or Israel.
The protracted diplomatic efforts have become more urgent with a surge in attacks across the region by Iran-backed Hamas allies, triggering counterattacks by the United States and its partners.
The war was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Militants also seized around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza — including 28 believed to have been killed, according to updated figures from the prime minister’s office.
Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,478 people in Gaza, mostly wom-en and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The proposed truce would pause fighting for an initial six weeks as Hamas frees hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and more aid enters Gaza, according to a Hamas source.
Spain however said it would give an additional 3.5 million euros ($3.8 million) “so that UNRWA can maintain its activities in the short term”, said Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres announced the creation of an independent panel to assess UNRWA and “whether the agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality”, a UN statement said.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged donors to maintain support for the agency “to allow it to provide its vital humanitarian services… particularly in light of the tragic humanitarian situation in Gaza”, a royal statement said.
In a meeting with Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Amman, the two leaders urged the protection of civilians in Gaza and called to intensify efforts towards a lasting ceasefire and a “political solution” to the conflict, the statement said.
French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, on his first visit to the region since taking office, said peace will only be achieved through diplomacy, urging the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks “with-out delay”.
Since the Gaza war broke out, violence has surged across the region including on the Israel-Lebanon border where the military reported Monday more exchanges with Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Sejourne that “time is running out” to reach a solution, warning of mil-itary action in the Lebanon border area “to return the evacuated citizens” if diplomacy fails.
Stating his case for a “complete victory” in Gaza, Netanyahu said that without it displaced Israelis “will not return, the next massacre will only be a matter of time, and Iran, Hezbollah and others will simply celebrate.”

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