Top US diplomat Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to the occupied West Bank on Sunday, meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas as Israel pressed its war to destroy Hamas that has already claimed thousands of lives.
Blinken arrived in Ramallah under tight security one day after meeting in Jordan with Arab foreign ministers angered by mounting civilian deaths in Gaza, where the Hamas-run health ministry said dozens were killed in a strike on a refugee camp.
Washington has rebuffed calls for a ceasefire, instead backing Israel’s goal of crushing Hamas militants who staged the deadliest attack in the country’s history on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people and taking 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has relentlessly bombarded the besieged Gaza Strip in response, levelling entire city blocks and killing more than 9,480 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Blinken last week told a Senate hearing the Palestinian Authority should retake control of Gaza, even though it currently exercises only limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long sought to sideline it.
The Israel-Hamas 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, including three young men killed by Israeli forces on Sunday, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
– Refugee camp attacked –
Ground battles raged on Sunday in northern Gaza, where Israeli troops tightening their encirclement of Gaza City — still home to hundreds of thousands of civilians — were seen engaged in house-to-house battles as tanks and armoured bulldozers churned through the sand in footage released by the army.
In a video taken from Israel’s Sderot along the border with the Gaza Strip, an Israeli flag was seen raised on top of a destroyed building.
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.
Leaflets dropped by the army again urged Gaza City residents to evacuate south between 10 am (0800 GMT) and 2 pm (1200 GMT), a day after a US official said at least 350,000 civilians remained in and around the city that is now an urban war zone.
In the latest strikes in Gaza, the Hamas-run health ministry 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.
Alaloul told AFP his 13-year-old son, Ahmed, and his four-year-old son, Qais, were killed in the bombing, along with his brother. His wife, mother and two other children were injured.
A military spokesperson said they were looking into whether their forces had been operating in the area at the time of the bombing.
More than 240 Israeli and foreign hostages were abducted by Hamas, officials say, and Netanyahu has rebuffed proposals of a truce until the Islamist group releases them all.
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, a day after Netanyahu gave the idea short shrift.
Blinken was later headed to Turkey whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held Netanyahu personally responsible for the growing civilian death toll in Gaza.
Turkey on Saturday said it was recalling its ambassador to Israel and breaking off contacts with Netanyahu.
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, called for an “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire”.
– Netanyahu under pressure –
The 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 Indonesian protester Dwi Nurfitriani said during a march in Jakarta. “So, if we consider ourselves human, let’s step in and reject all of the violence.”
Thousands also demonstrated in Israel on Saturday as pressure mounts on Netanyahu over his government’s lack of preparedness for the October 7 attacks and its handling of the hostage crisis.
In Tel Aviv, several thousand took to the streets, including relatives and friends of some of the hostages, chanting “bring them home now”.
In Jerusalem, hundreds came together outside Netanyahu’s residence with more explicit calls for his resignation.
Hamas said late Saturday the evacuation of dual nationals and foreigners from Gaza was being suspended until Israel lets some wounded Palestinians reach Rafah so they can cross the border for hospital treatment in Egypt.
A senior White House official said Hamas had tried to use a US-brokered deal opening the Egyptian border crossing to get its cadres out.
“That was just unacceptable to Egypt, to us, to Israel,” the official said.
Concluding a two-day visit to Egypt, Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Programme, on Sunday appealed for more aid for Gaza, stressing that trucks allowed in so far are no match for needs on the ground.
“Right now, parents in Gaza do not know whether they can feed their children today and whether they will even survive to see tomorrow. The suffering just metres away is unfathomable standing on this side of the border,” she said after visiting the Rafah border crossing.
“Today, I’m making an urgent plea for the millions of people whose lives are being torn apart by this crisis.”
The Israeli military describes Gaza City as “the centre of the Hamas terror organisation”.
Israeli chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi visited troops inside Gaza on Saturday after they completed the encirclement of Gaza City, which lies to the north of the Al-Maghazi camp.
In the north of Israel, the army and Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement again traded fire across the border on Saturday, with each claiming to have hit the other’s positions.
The skirmishes came after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warned that the war could draw in other forces in a regional conflict.