The United States’ top diplomat Antony Blinken landed in Tel Aviv on Friday to push for humanitarian pauses in the Gaza war as Israel said it had surrounded the Palestinian enclave’s biggest city and the focus of its drive to annihilate Hamas.
Blinken, on his second trip to Israel in a month, is due to discuss with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders concrete steps to minimise harm to civilians in besieged Gaza, where food, fuel, water and medicine are scarce.
The White House, meanwhile, said any pauses in fighting should be temporary and localised, and insisted they would not stop Israel defending itself.
“When I see a Palestinian child – a boy, a girl – pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building, that hits me in the gut as much as seeing a child from Israel or anywhere else,” Blinken told reporters before leaving for Israel. “So this is something that we have an obligation to respond to, and we will.”
Newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Israel Jacob Lew traveled with Blinken to Tel Aviv.
Gaza health authorities say at least 9,061 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its assault on the enclave of 2.3 million people in retaliation for deadly attacks by Hamas militants on southern Israel.
Israel says Hamas killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 240 hostages in the attacks on Oct. 7, the deadliest day of its 75-year-old history.
On Thursday, Netanyahu said the military had encircled Gaza City, the enclave’s biggest, and was advancing. The Israel Defense Forces, in a statement on Friday, said its jets, artillery and navy had struck Hamas targets overnight, killing several militants including Mustafa Dalul, a Hamas commander it said had directed combat in the Gaza Strip.
There was no immediate confirmation from Hamas.
Mounting casualties among Palestinian civilians, along with acute shortages of basic supplies, have intensified calls by global leaders for a pause in fighting or a ceasefire.
The United Arab Emirates, one of a handful of Arab states with diplomatic ties to Israel, said on Friday it was working “relentlessly” for an immediate ceasefire, warning that the risk of regional spillover and further escalation was real.
Israel has dismissed these calls, saying it targets Hamas fighters whom it accuses of intentionally hiding among the population and civilian buildings. The White House has also rejected calls for a ceasefire.
Blinken is due to meet Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman on Saturday. In a statement, Safadi said Israel must end the war on Gaza, where he said it was committing war crimes by bombing civilians and imposing a siege.
With the conflict at the end of its fourth-week, over a third of Gaza’s 35 hospitals are not functioning, with many turned into impromptu refugee camps.
“The situation is beyond catastrophic,” said the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, describing packed corridors and many medics who were themselves bereaved and homeless.
A group of independent United Nations human rights experts warned that Palestinians in Gaza are at “grave risk of genocide”.
The Israeli mission to the U.N. in Geneva called the UN rapporteur’s comments “deplorable and deeply concerning” and blamed Hamas for the civilian deaths. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said a determination of genocide could only be made by a relevant U.N. judicial body.
While Israel intensifies its assault against Hamas, diplomats in the United Nations, Washington and the Middle East have started floating ideas for a post-Hamas Gaza- provided Israel succeeds in removing the Iran-backed militant group, which has ruled the enclave since 2007.
Israel has so far failed to come up with an endgame to the conflict, and a source familiar with the matter said discussions so far include the deployment of a multinational force, an interim Palestinian-led administration that would exclude Hamas, a stopgap security and governance role for neighbouring Arab states and temporary U.N. supervision of the territory.
A military victory for Israel is unlikely to come easy.
Brigadier General Iddo Mizrahi, chief of Israel’s military engineers, said troops were encountering mines and booby traps in Gaza. “Hamas has learned and prepared itself well,” he said.
Israel has said it has lost 18 soldiers in the offensive. Abu Ubaida, spokesperson for the armed wing of Hamas, said in a televised speech that Israel’s death toll in Gaza was much higher than the military had announced. “Your soldiers will return in black bags,” he said.
Hamas and allied Islamic Jihad fighters were emerging from tunnels to fire at tanks, then disappearing back into the network, residents said and videos from both groups showed.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S was flying intelligence-gathering drones over Gaza to help locate hostages. Thailand said it was in touch with Iran and other governments that can make contact with Hamas for the safe release of nearly two dozen Thais hostages.
The Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt was due to open for a third day on Friday for limited evacuations under a Qatari-brokered deal aimed at letting some foreign passport holders, their dependents and some wounded Gazans out of the enclave.
According to border officials, more than 700 foreign citizens left for Egypt via Rafah on the two previous days. Dozens of critically injured Palestinians were to cross too. Israel asked foreign countries to send hospital ships for them.