Blinken returns to ME on fourth trip since October as Israel continues war on Palestinians in Gaza - as it happened

Ahram Online , Thursday 4 Jan 2024

The Israeli army intensified its airstrikes in central and southern Gaza on the 90th day of its genocidal war against the Palestinians in the strip; Egypt reiterates the call for reaching a ceasefire; Blinken is due to return to the region on Friday.

People demonstrate to call for a ceasefire and mourn the children killed in the Gaza Strip, in New York, December 28, 2023.AFP


23:00 US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will travel to Istanbul, Türkiye; Crete, Greece; Amman, Jordan; Doha, Qatar; Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates; Al ‘Ula, Saudi Arabia; Tel Aviv, Israel; the West Bank; and Cairo, Egypt from 4-11 January. 

"Throughout his trip, the Secretary will underscore the importance of protecting civilian lives in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza; securing the release of all remaining hostages; our shared commitment to facilitating the increased, sustained delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza and the resumption of essential services; and ensuring that Palestinians are not forcibly displaced from Gaza," according to a State Department press release. 

Blinken's visit comes two days after Israel assassinated six top Hamas officials in a missile strike in West Beirut and as several Israeli officials, including PM Netanyahu, raised war-mongering rhetoric of desires to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population from Gaza.

"He will also discuss urgent mechanisms to stem violence, calm rhetoric, and reduce regional tensions, including deterring Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and avoiding escalation in Lebanon." 

"The Secretary will reaffirm the US commitment to working with partners to set the conditions necessary for peace in the Middle East, which includes comprehensive, tangible steps toward the realization of a future Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, with both living in peace and security."

This will be Blinken's fourth trip to the Middle East since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza on 7 October

The US refusal to support a UNSC resolution calling for a ceasefire to the Israeli war on Gaza has sparked regional and international outcry.

20:00 In his evening brief on the war, Daniel Hagari, the spokesperson for the Israeli army, said that three additional individuals who were identified as missing were now identified as captives in Gaza, bringing the total number of those still in captivity by Hamas since 7 October to 136.

Hamas had captured 250 Israelis at the start of the Aqsa Flood operation on 7 October but swapped nearly 120 of these captives for more than 300 Palestinians in Israeli jails as part of a prisoner exchange deal in November.

In three months of Israeli airstrikes and ground operations, which devastated 2.4 million Palestinians in Gaza, the Israeli army failed to rescue one captive.

Moreover, in mid-December, Israeli soldiers executed three Israeli soldiers who broke free from captivity and raised white flags on the spot after believing they were Palestinians.In mid-December

Meanwhile, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant stressed the need for a "new reality" on the border with Lebanon.

Gallant's comments came during a meeting with visiting US envoy Amos Hochstein in Tel Aviv.

It comes 48 hours after Israel assassinated Hamas deputy head Saleh Al-Aruri and five top Palestinian officials in a missile strike on a home in the Hezbollah stronghold in West Beirut.

Hezbollah, which has traded fire with Israel along the Israeli-Lebanese border since 8 October, has vowed that Israel's killing of Hamas deputy "will not go unanswered."

19:00 Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry emphasized the necessity of reaching a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip during separate meetings held with US Senators in Cairo on Thursday.

El-Sisi and Shoukry met with US Democratic Senate members Chris Van Hollen and Jeff Merkley, who are currently visiting Egypt. 

According to the Egyptian Presidential Spokesman Ahmed Fahmy, El-Sisi stressed to the US senators the importance of exchanging captives and prisoners and delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza to relieve the suffering of thousands of displaced civilians.   

The US has staunchly supported the Israeli campaign in Gaza - financially and militarily - since the get-go on 7 October, resisting all international as well as domestic pressures to withdraw its support to the Israeli genocidal campaign against the Palestinians in Gaza.

Washington has vetoed all attempts to call for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza war in the United Nations Security Council, opting to vote only for a resolution calling for the entry of humanitarian aid to the under-Israeli-blockade strip. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to arrive for a new tour in the Middle East on Friday, including a visit to discuss the developments in the war with Israeli officials.

Meanwhile, Pro-Palestinian cause protests against the Israeli war on Gaza and the US support of Israel continued across the United States.

On Wednesday, Palestine solidarity protesters from anti-Zionist Jewish groups, who have played a prominent role in the protests, disrupted proceedings during the first day of California legislature by calling for a ceasefire in Gaza

18:00 Hundreds of people attended the funeral in Beirut on Thursday of Hamas number two Saleh Al-Aruri who was assassinated in a Lebanon strike blamed on Israel.

Calling on Hamas to avenge his death and the killing of five other members of the Palestinian resistance group on Tuesday, the mourners gathered at a mosque to recite the prayer of the dead before marching to Shatila refugee camp, the site of an infamous Israeli massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in 1982, where three of them were to be buried.

The coffins of the three, Aruri, Azzam Al-Aqraa of the Hamas military wing Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, and Mohammad Al-Rais, were draped in Palestinian and Hamas flags.

A machine gun was laid on top of each coffin and heavy gunfire rang out as the funeral procession made its way to the cemetery, drowning out chants of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) by mourners waving Palestinian flags.

"Abu Obeida, bomb Tel Aviv," the mourners shouted, addressing the Gaza spokesman of the Hamas military wing by his nom de guerre.

Aruri and the six other Hamas members were killed in a strike in a south Beirut stronghold of Hezbollah.

Hamas and Lebanese security officials accused Israel of launching the attack, with one high-level Lebanese security official saying guided missiles targeted them.

A US defence official told AFP on Wednesday that Israel was behind the attack. Israel has not claimed any responsibility.

Aruri is the most senior Hamas figure to be killed since the Israeli war on Gaza broke out on 7 October.

"The assassination of Saleh Al-Aruri and any other Palestinian is a failed act because the resistance will continue to produce new leaders," one of the mourners, Oman Ghannum, told AFP.

The 35-year-old Palestinian said he wanted to take part in the funeral procession "to denounce the genocide underway in Gaza and the violation of Lebanese sovereignty by Israel".

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel in a speech on Wednesday against starting a war in Lebanon, vowing that his group would fight back without restraint.

Several Hamas figures in exile reside in Lebanon, under the protection of Hezbollah.

Since the war began, there have been near-daily exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah in the border area.

Women chant slogans during the funeral procession of Hamas officials in Beirut, killed a day earlier in the Lebanese capital's southern suburbs, on January 4, 2024. AFP

17:00 Thousands of displaced Palestinians who lost their homes due to Israeli bombardment have taken shelter in the Rafah Zoo - the only zoo in the Gaza Strip.

Photographers captured priceless moments of a population that refuses to die - with women and men smiling as they cook meals and children playing with their new animal and bird neighbours :)

Photo: AFP

15:00 The death toll of Palestinians killed by Israel in Gaza since the war has risen to 22,438, with a vast majority being children and women.

Additionally, 57,614 people have been wounded.

The Palestinian Health Ministry recorded 125 fatalities over the past 24 hours alone

14:50 The Israeli army destroyed Khalifa Bin Zayed School in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip, which served as a shelter for displaced Palestinians.

13:00 UN human rights chief Volker Turk said he was "very disturbed" after comments by senior Israeli officials calling for Palestinians to leave Gaza.

"Very disturbed by high-level Israeli officials' statements on plans to transfer civilians from Gaza to third countries," Turk wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

12:40 Saudi Arabia and Qatar strongly condemned the remarks made by extremist Israeli Ministers of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Bezalel Smotrich advocating for the displacement of Gaza residents, the re-occupation of the strip, and the construction of Israeli settlements. 

The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Thursday expressing the Kingdom's "strong condemnation and unequivocal rejection of the extremist statements made by ministers in the Israeli occupation government, calling for the displacement of Gaza residents and the re-occupation of the sector to build settlements."

The statement emphasized the "importance of international community collaboration to activate international accountability mechanisms against the Israeli occupation government, through its statements and actions, in violation of international legitimacy and humanitarian law."

Qatar, a prominent mediator in the prisoner exchange process between Hamas and Israel, also strongly denounced the Israeli ministers' statements.

Qatar considered these statements as "an extension of the occupation's approach in violating the rights of the Palestinian people and disregarding international laws and agreements, with poisonous efforts to obstruct peace prospects, particularly the two-state solution."

The Qatari Foreign Ministry affirmed that "the collective punishment policy and forced displacement practised by the occupation authorities against the people of Gaza will not change the fact that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain so."

The ministers' remarks also drew condemnation from Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who labelled the Israeli statements as"inflammatory and irresponsible."

"Forced displacements are strictly prohibited as a grave violation of IHL (international humanitarian law) & words matter," he said on social media.

11:24 The Israeli occupation forces conducted wide-scale detention operations across various areas in the occupied West Bank, resulting in the detainment of 27 Palestinians, among them a photojournalist from the WAFA news agency.

Israeli army humvees move along a dirt road in the Gaza Strip near a position along the border with southern Israel on January 4, 2024. AFP 

Two Palestinians were detained in Salfit and one in Qalqilya.

In Tulkarm, where Israeli forces are engaged in ongoing aggression against the city and its camps, two Palestinians, including WAFA photojournalist Wafa Awwad, were detained.

Furthermore, Israeli forces detained four Palestinians from Hebron, six from Bethlehem, two from Jenin, one from Nablus, and another from Tubas.

Eight individuals, including former Palestinian prisoners, were detained in Ramallah.

11:12 Four Hezbollah fighters have been killed overnight in southern Lebanon, the movement announced Thursday, in what Lebanese state media said were Israeli strikes on the border town of Naqura.

​Lebanon's official National News Agency said Israeli aircraft "carried out raids on the centre of Naqura, which destroyed a home and damaged surrounding houses".

The deaths, which according to a source close to the group include a local Hezbollah leader, follow a strike on Beirut this week that killed a senior Hamas leader, raising regional tensions as war rages in Gaza.

Hezbollah said in a statement the four fighters had been killed "on the road to Jerusalem" -- a phrase it has been using to announce the deaths of its members due to Israeli fire since the Israeli war on Gaza started on 7 October.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel in a speech on Wednesday against starting a war in Lebanon, assuring that his movement would fight "without limits."

11:00 The first hearing in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to consider the lawsuit filed by the Republic of South Africa against Israel for crimes of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, is set for 11 and 12 January.

Spokesperson of the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Clayson Monyela, said in a post on X that the hearing is scheduled for January 11th in The Hague and will continue until the next day. He stressed that his country is continuing with its preparations in this regard.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor called for supporting her country’s genocide case against Israel.

She stressed that ‘we will never forget Palestine’ and will continue the struggle for freedom and justice of the Palestine people before the world to stop the genocide in Gaza, she said.

If precedent is any guide, the ICJ may issue a provisional ruling within weeks, while the Israeli attacks on Gaza are still underway.

Turkey, Malaysia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which groups 57 countries, have endorsed South Africa’s application at the ICJ against Israel.

10:50 The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that a "scenario of surrender and deportation" of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is being considered, as reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing Israeli news channel 12.

In recordings from Netanyahu's meeting with the families of the Israeli hostages that took place yesterday (Tuesday), the prime minister was heard saying, "We are not rejecting that possibility. There are claims to be made for and against it."

The United States already slammed comments by two extremist Israeli ministers who said Palestinians should be encouraged to emigrate from Gaza and called for Jewish settlers to return to the besieged territory.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington "rejects recent statements from Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza."

"This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible," added Miller, who reiterated the "clear, consistent, and unequivocal" US position that "Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land."

10:35 1.9 million people, or nearly 85 per cent of the total population of Gaza, were estimated to be internally displaced, including some who have been displaced multiple times, as families are forced to move repeatedly in search of safety, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said.

Nearly 1.4 million are sheltering in 155 UNRWA facilities across all five governorates.

Rafah is now the main refuge for those displaced, with over one million people, squeezed into an extremely overcrowded space, following the intensification of hostilities in Khan Younis and Deir al Balah, and the Israeli military’s evacuation orders. 

UNRWA added that the number of people in the northern governorates has not been updated since 12 October, due to access constraints and the security situation preventing verification.

10:15 The Lebanese Hezbollah released a video showing the targeting of Israeli spies and military equipment at Israeli forces sites near the Lebanese border.

10:10 A senior Biden education official announced his resignation Wednesday, citing the administration’s failure to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza from Israel’s offensive in its deadly war with Hamas.

In a letter addressed to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Wednesday, Tariq Habash, a policy advisor in the department's Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, wrote “I cannot stay silent as this administration turns a blind eye to the atrocities committed against innocent Palestinian lives, in what leading human rights experts have called a genocidal campaign by the Israeli government.”

Habash, a Palestinian American, is a political appointee and a specialist in student loans and college affordability.

His resignation is the latest sign of unease within the ranks of the Biden administration over the president's handling of the Israeli brutal war on Gaza. 

On Wednesday, 17 Joe Biden re-election campaign staffers issued a warning in an anonymous letter that the US president could lose voters over his stance in the Israel war on Gaza, Reuters is reporting.

In their letter, published on Medium, they urge Biden to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. They write:

"Biden for President staff have seen volunteers quit in droves, and people who have voted blue for decades feel uncertain about doing so for the first time, because of this conflict," the staffers wrote in the letter.

In November, more than 400 Biden administration officials wrote an open letter calling on Biden to insist on a cease-fire. 

Simultaneously, over 1,000 officials in the US Agency for International Development (USAID), part of the State Department, signed an open letter urging the Biden administration to call for an immediate ceasefire.

At least three cables criticising the administration’s policy have previously filed with the state department’s internal “dissent channel,” with the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, acknowledging the disagreements in a November letter.

Furthermore, in December, some staff in the Biden administration held a vigil near the White House to demand a ceasefire in Gaza.

10:05 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to arrive in the Middle East on Friday, including a visit to Israel.

Blinken is set to depart on Thursday night "for stops in several capitals, including Israel," as mentioned by a US official to a news agency, without providing further specifics.

This marks the fourth trip to the Middle East for the US Secretary of State since the conflict began, and with each visit, Israel's killing of the Palestinians in Gaza intensifies.

The visit follows a suspected Israeli strike that killed a prominent Hamas leader in Beirut, sparking concerns of a broader conflict.

Additionally, 84 people have been killed and over 200 injured in Iran in twin explosions near the mausoleum of a slain Revolutionary Guards general, attributed, by Teheran, to the United States and Israel.

10:00 The Palestinian Red Crescent Society released a video capturing the initial moments of the Israeli strike on its headquarters in Khan Younis, which has led to seven injuries among the displaced families.

9:45 The Israeli occupation forces continued their assaults on the occupied West Bank cities, as its forces stormed civilians’ homes in the city of Tulkarm and its two refugee camps, arresting several Palestinians for the second day in a row.

It also raided the cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, Qalqilya, Hebron, Tubas, and Nablus. 

On Wednesday, a Palestinian young man was killed by Israeli fire in the town of Tammoun, south of Tubas.

Around 11,000 Palestinians from the West Bank were detained by the Israeli forces during the year 2023, half of whom were detained since 7 October 7, according to Palestinian Prisoners' institutions.

9:20 In the aftermath of the attack in Kerman, where 84 Iranians have been killed, two Iranian sources told the New York Times that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei instructed military commanders to pursue “strategic patience” and avoid getting Iran into a direct military confrontation with the United States at all costs. 

The two people familiar with Iran’s discussions said Khamenei had ordered the military to limit retaliation to covert operations against Israel or militia attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq.

On Wednesday, Iran blamed Israel and the United States for twin bomb blasts in the country's south city of Kerman, ripping through a crowd commemorating Revolutionary Guards general Qasem Soleimani four years after he was killed in a US strike.

"Washington says USA and Israel had no role in the terrorist attack in Kerman, Iran. Really? A fox smells its lair first," the Iranian president's political deputy, Mohammad Jamshidi wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

9:00 Wounded Palestinians have been admitted to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah following the Israeli shelling of various areas in the Gaza Strip.

Dozens of Palestinians have been killed and others injured overnight in the ongoing Israeli strikes on civilian homes in central and southern Gaza, the Palestinian WAFA news agency reported.

14 civilians, including children and women, were killed, and others were injured, when the occupation forces bombed a building, housing displaced people, west of Khan Yunis, south of the Strip.

The number of killed after the occupation aircraft bombed agricultural land housing displaced people west of Khan Yunis rose to six, Wafa reported.

According to Al Arabiya, Israeli artillery targeted the Red Crescent headquarters and Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Yunis.

Occupation aircraft and artillery bombed homes in Al-Maghazi camp and Al-Masdar village in central Gaza, killing dozens and wounding others. There are still missing people under the rubble.

The Al-Zawaida area in the central region has also faced intense Israeli artillery and airstrikes.

The strikes also hit the vicinity of a junior high school in the al-Bureij refugee camp, wounding dozens of displaced who were seeking refugee inside the school.

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