Top US diplomat Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to the occupied West Bank Sunday, meeting the Palestinian president as Israel pressed on with its deadliest campaign yet in Gaza to destroy Hamas.
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.
In his sit-down with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Blinken said Palestinians in Gaza “must not be forcibly displaced,” and the pair discussed “the need to stop extremist violence against Palestinians” in the West Bank, a US State Department spokesman said.
Israel has repeatedly urged Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to head south as fighting intensified, spurring fears of mass displacement.
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.
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 Oct. 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 9,770 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Blinken last week told a Senate hearing Abbas’ 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 Sunday, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
In the Gaza Strip, ground battles raged Sunday in the north, where Israeli troops tightening their encirclement of Gaza City were seen engaged in house-to-house combat 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 Sunday.
Leaflets dropped by the army again urged Gaza City residents to evacuate south between 10 a.m. (0800 GMT) and 2 p.m. (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.
A military spokesperson said Israel was looking into whether its forces had been operating in the area at the time of the bombing.
During a visit to Qatar, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna called for “an immediate, durable and observed humanitarian truce” that could “lead to a ceasefire,” though Netanyahu has rejected talk of a truce until Hamas releases all hostages.
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.
Blinken left the West Bank for Cyprus, the nearest EU member state to the Gaza Strip which last week said it was working towards establishing a maritime corridor for aid to Gaza.
Later Blinken was expected in Turkey whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held Netanyahu personally responsible for Gaza's growing civilian death toll.
Turkey Saturday said it was recalling its ambassador to Israel and breaking off contacts with Netanyahu.
‘Lives torn apart’
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.”
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.
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, relatives and friends of some of the hostages chanted “bring them home now,” while 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, calling it “just unacceptable.”
Concluding a two-day visit to Egypt, Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Programme, 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,” 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.”