Blinken on Middle East crisis tour as bloody war roils Gaza

AFP , Sunday 5 Nov 2023

US top diplomat Antony Blinken visited the occupied West Bank on Sunday, part of a whirlwind Middle East tour as Israel pursues its deadliest campaign yet in besieged Gaza.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas amid the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, at the Muqata in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. AP


Blinken met Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas who denounced what he labelled a "genocide" in Gaza, where the Palestinian Ministry of Health said at least 9,770 people had been killed in more than four weeks of war.

Washington has rebuffed calls for a ceasefire and backed Israel's goal of crushing Hamas who staged the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation on October 7.

Global concern has soared over the spiralling Gaza death toll, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again vowed that "there won't be a ceasefire until the hostages are returned. Let them remove this from their lexicon.

"We are saying this to our enemies and to our friends," the veteran right-wing premier said after meeting troops at an air force base. "We will simply continue until we win. We have no alternative."

Ground battles raged again in northern Gaza, where Israeli troops tightened their encirclement of Gaza City. Soldiers were seen engaged in house-to-house combat as tanks and armoured bulldozers churned through the sand in footage released by the Israeli occupation army.

"This strike is like an earthquake," Gaza City resident Alaa Abu Hasera said while surveying damaged buildings in the devastated area where entire blocks have been reduced to rubble.

Blinken, in his sit-down talks with Abbas, said Palestinians in Gaza "must not be forcibly displaced", a US State Department spokesman said, after Blinken earlier urged "humanitarian pauses" to the fighting.

Israel has repeatedly urged Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to head south, in leaflets and text messages, but a US official said Saturday at least 350,000 civilians remained in what is now an urban war zone.

Abbas denounced "the genocide and destruction suffered by our Palestinian people in Gaza at the hands of Israel's war machine, with no regard for the principles of international law," according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.


'Stop extremist violence'

Israel has relentlessly pounded the besieged Gaza Strip in its battle to destroy Hamas, levelling entire city blocks and killing thousands, mostly women and children, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.  

"Right now, parents in Gaza do not know whether they can feed their children today and whether they will even survive to see tomorrow," said Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Programme.

Blinken last week told a Senate hearing Abbas's Palestinian Authority should retake control of Gaza after the war. It currently exercises only limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Netanyahu has long sought to sideline it.

Abbas said Sunday the Palestinian Authority could return to power in Gaza in future only if a "comprehensive political solution" is found for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Washington has said it backs a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but Netanyahu's hard-right government has been implacably opposed.

The war has exacerbated tensions in the West Bank, where more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces and in settler attacks, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

In the West Bank city of Jenin, bulldozers on Sunday cleared the smoke-blackened rubble of buildings officials said were burnt in a nighttime Israeli raid.

Blinken and Abbas discussed "the need to stop extremist violence against Palestinians" in the West Bank, the State Department said.


'Stain on humanity'

Since Israel sent ground forces into the north of the narrow Palestinian territory late last month, "over 2,500 terror targets have been struck" by "ground, air and naval forces", the army said on Sunday.

Images from the Gaza Strip showed civilians heading south away from the fighting, though Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari told foreign reporters Hamas was using roadblocks to try to prevent them from fleeing.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said Israeli bombing of Al-Maghazi refugee camp late Saturday killed 45 people, with an eyewitness reporting children dead and homes smashed.

"An Israeli air strike targeted my neighbours' house in Al-Maghazi camp, my house next door partially collapsed," said Mohammed Alaloul, 37, a journalist working for the Turkish Anadolu Agency.

He told AFP the bombing killed four of his children as well as four of his brothers and several of his nieces and nephews.

The Israeli military has said it is looking into whether its forces were operating in the area at the time of the bombing.

Blinken faced a rising tide of anger in meetings with Arab foreign ministers in Jordan on Saturday, where he reaffirmed US support for "humanitarian pauses" to ensure desperate civilians get help.

The incoming US ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, said on Sunday the October 7 Hamas Al-Aqsa Flood Operation was "a stain on humanity that cannot happen again", while presenting his credentials to President Isaac Herzog.


'Not a war, a massacre'

Blinken, meanwhile, left the West Bank for Cyprus, the nearest EU member state to Israel and the Gaza Strip, which has said it is working towards establishing a maritime corridor for aid to Gaza.

A senior State Department official told reporters Blinken would "discuss ways to further US-Cyprus cooperation on humanitarian challenges".

Later Blinken was expected in Turkey whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held Netanyahu personally responsible for Gaza's growing civilian death toll.

Turkey on Saturday said it was recalling its ambassador to Israel and breaking off contacts with Netanyahu.

International concern mounted over the suffering.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, on a visit to Qatar, called for "an immediate, durable and observed humanitarian truce" that could "lead to a ceasefire".

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, whose country has been acting as the sole conduit for foreigners to escape the Gaza Strip and for aid to get in, on Saturday called for an "immediate and comprehensive ceasefire".

That call was echoed by thousands of protesters in Washington in solidarity with Palestinians, one of multiple rallies held from Indonesia to Iran as well as in European cities.

"The violence in Gaza has been prolonged and indiscriminate -- it's not a war but a massacre," 27-year-old protester Dwi Nurfitriani said during a march in Jakarta.

Thousands also demonstrated in Israel on Saturday as pressure mounts on Netanyahu over his government's lack of preparedness for the October 7 operation and its handling of the captive’s crisis.

Hundreds protested outside Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence calling on him to resign while in Tel Aviv relatives and friends of some of the captives chanted "bring them home now".


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