Top US diplomat to meet Israeli PM as fears of escalation rise

AFP , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

The US secretary of state Antony Blinken is set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Tuesday as part of efforts to contain the Israeli war on Gaza, a day after strikes in Syria and Lebanon killed high-profile members of Hamas and Hezbollah.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog meet in Tel Aviv, I
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog meet in Tel Aviv, Israel. AP


The visit comes as the Israeli military said its war on the Gaza Strip was shifting into a new phase involving more targeted operations in the territory's centre and south.

Sirens warning of incoming rockets sounded in central and southern Israel on Monday, as well as near the border with Lebanon, where Israeli strikes and tit-for-tat exchanges of fire with Hezbollah militants have raised fears the war could spread north.

Earlier in the day, Hezbollah announced the killing of a "commander" for the first time since October, naming him as Wissam Hassan Tawil.

A security official in Lebanon, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tawil "had a leading role in managing Hezbollah's operations in the south", and was killed there by an Israeli strike.

This was the second high-profile killing in Lebanon this month, following an Israeli strike in Beirut that assassinated Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri.

On Monday the Israeli army also said it had assassinated a "central" Hamas figure in Syria, Hassan Akasha.


Crisis visit 

The repeated strikes in Lebanon and Syria, attacks against US forces in Iraq, and a campaign against shipping in the Red Sea by Yemeni rebels have all contributed to fears the Middle East could be dragged into all-out war.

In a bid to stave off that possibility, Blinken touched down in Tel Aviv late Monday after stops in six other countries in his fourth crisis visit to the Middle East since the war began.

He is scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials, as well as war cabinet member and leading opposition figure Benny Gantz.

The war has displaced most of Gaza's population, according to the United Nations, and left civilians at risk of famine and disease, the WHO says.

With only minimal aid entering the besieged territory, Israeli rights group B'Tselem on Monday said "everyone in Gaza is going hungry" as "direct results of Israel's declared policy".

It was joined by the US-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which condemned in a statement Washington's support of the "far-right Israeli government's declared policy of starvation".

The United States has said Blinken will press Israel on its compliance with international humanitarian law and ask for "immediate measures" to boost aid to Gaza.

As Israel's main ally and arms supplier, Washington has grown increasingly concerned over the war's civilian death toll, with President Joe Biden noting in a campaign speech Monday that he had been "quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce" their troop presence in Gaza.

Yet, Washington had blocked all UN Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire, and with each Blinken's visit to the region, Israel intensifies its killing of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.



Journalists killed 

The United Nations on Monday said it was "very concerned by the high death toll of media workers", a day after an Israeli strike had killed two of journalists, of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, including the son of Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh.

In the southern border town of Rafah, another strike on Monday killed two of Dahdouh's nephews.

Dahdouh was recently wounded himself in an Israeli strike that killed his cameraman, having already lost his wife, two other children, and grand son in an Israeli bombardment in the initial weeks of the war.

"They say Rafah is safe, but we don't see it is safe in Rafah. No place is safe," said Mohammad Hejazy, overlooking the blood-soaked road.

The UN rights office called for all journalist deaths to be "thoroughly and independently investigated".

Violence against Palestinians has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli police confirmed three people were killed late Monday during a raid on Tulkarem.

According to the UN, Israeli army and terrorist Israeli settlers killed a total of 329 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 7, including 84 children.

* This story has been edited by Ahram Online.

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