Blinken heads to Mideast to press for truce

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to the Middle East for another crisis tour on Monday in a bid to secure a new truce in the Israel-Hamas war, as southern Gaza saw no let-up in fighting.

On his fifth trip to the region since Hamas’s 7 October attack that triggered the war, Blinken is expected to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Qatar.

Ahead of the trip he stressed the need for “urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza”, after aid groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the devastating impact on the besieged territory of nearly five months of war.

“The situation is indescribable,” said Said Hamouda, a Palestinian who fled his home in the Gaza Strip to the southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.

Dubbed a “pressure cooker of despair” by the United Nations, Rafah now hosts more than half of Gaza’s 2.4 million people, displaced due to Israel’s assault.

“Whether you have a million dollars or a hundred you are in the same situation,” Hamouda said.

Over the weekend, Israel pressed further south towards the teeming border city, warning its ground forces could advance on Rafah as part of its campaign to eradicate Hamas.

On Monday morning, sources told AFP they could hear artillery shelling in the areas of eastern Rafah and Khan Yunis, Gaza’s main city.

Israel says Khan Yunis is where militants prepared for the 7 October attack, and that high-ranking Hamas officials are hiding there.

At least 128 people, mostly women and children, were killed in Israeli strikes overnight Sunday to Monday in the besieged territory, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.

The Hamas government media office said Israeli bombardments have continued across the centre and southern end of coastal territory, including near hospitals.

No agreement yet

With Blinken arriving in the region, he is expected to discuss a proposed truce thrashed out in a Paris meeting in January of top US, Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials.

The diplomatic push has become more urgent with the surge in attacks by Iran-backed groups in solidarity with Hamas, triggering counterattacks by the United States.

The proposed truce would pause fighting for an initial six weeks as Hamas frees hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, according to a Hamas source.

Hamas has said no agreement has yet been reached, while some Israeli officials have expressed opposition to any perceived concessions.

The war was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented 7 October attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also seized around 250 hostages, and Israel says 132 remain in Gaza including at least 27 believed to have been killed.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,365 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.

Gazans have faced dire humanitarian conditions, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on X that “there is very limited access to clean water and sanitation amid relentless bombardment”.

UNRWA itself is facing a major controversy after accusations that 12 staffers were involved in Hamas’s October 7 attack.

More than a dozen countries, led by the United States, suspended their funding to the agency after the claims surfaced.

On Sunday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that nations suspending funding to UNRWA were threatening the existence of an agency providing “vital aid to more than 1.1 million people in Gaza suffering from catastrophic hunger and the outbreak of diseases”.

The UN has announced an audit into UNRWA’s operations.

Before departing for the region, Blinken said that the humanitarian crisis would be one of his focuses.

“Urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and advancing stability in the Middle East are priorities we share with Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said he told Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan.

The Gulf state had been mulling establishing relations with Israel before the war.

After talks in January with de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Blinken said he still saw a “clear interest” in pursuing normalisation.

Anger over hostages

Blinken’s latest Middle East visit comes as Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told the Wall Street Journal that its key ally has not shown sufficient support.

“Instead of giving us his full backing, (US President Joe) Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel (to Gaza), which goes to Hamas,” he said in an article published Sunday.

His outburst followed Washington imposing sanctions on four settlers amid rising violence against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank.

As well as divisions within his cabinet, Netanyahu is also facing public fury over the fate of the remaining hostages.

Hundreds of people rallied Saturday in Tel Aviv to demand early elections.

The following day, dozens demonstrated in London to draw attention to the women and girls still being held by Hamas.

Jerusalem deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum estimated 17 to 20 women and girls remain hostage.

“All we know is that every day that they remain in captivity their condition gets worse and there’s less of a chance that they’ll come out,” she said.