U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Israel’s prime minister on Friday to press American calls for a humanitarian pause in the fighting in Gaza, even as fears grew that the conflict could widen, with Israel warning that it was on high alert for attacks on its border with Lebanon.
Israeli troops tightened their encirclement of Gaza City, the focus of their campaign to crush the enclave’s ruling Hamas militants who launched a brutal attack on Israeli communities that started the war.
But ever since that Oct. 7 assault, there have been concerns the conflict could ignite fighting on other fronts, and Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group have repeatedly traded fire along the border. Tensions escalated further ahead of a speech planned for later Friday by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Those would be his first public comments since the Hamas attack.
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed ally of Hamas, attacked Israeli military positions in northern Israel with drones, mortar fire and suicide drones on Thursday. The Israeli military said it retaliated with warplanes and helicopter gunships, and spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said civilians were wounded in the Hezbollah attacks.
“We are in a high state of readiness in the north, in a very high state of alert, to respond to any event today and in coming days,” he said.
Since Israel’s war with Hamas began, Hezbollah has taken calculated steps to keep Israel’s military busy on the country’s border with Lebanon but so far has done nothing to ignite an all-out war. Fears are growing, however, that the war could escalate into a regional conflict.
More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza so far, mostly women and minors, and more and than 32,000 people have been wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry said, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters.
More than 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack, when some 240 people were also taken hostage. Some 5,400 have also been injured. Twenty-four Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the ground operation.
BLINKEN’S LATEST TRIP
This is Blinken’s third trip to Israel since the war began and he also plans to visit Amman, Jordan. It follows President Joe Biden’s suggestion for a humanitarian “pause” in the fighting. The aim would be to let in aid for Palestinians and let out more Palestinians who hold foreign passports and wounded.
Around 800 people left Gaza over the past two days — the first time people departed the besieged territory other than four hostages released by Hamas and another rescued by Israeli forces.
Blinken first held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind closed doors before starting wider discussions with the leader and his War Cabinet.
Israel has not openly responded to Biden’s suggestion. But Netanyahu, who has previously ruled out a cease-fire, said Thursday: “We are advancing. … Nothing will stop us.” He vowed to destroy Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.
The U.S. has pledged unwavering support for Israel. Before Blinken departed, the U.S. State Department reiterated American “support for Israel’s right to defend itself.”
At the same time, Blinken was expected to stress the importance of protecting civilians and push for more aid amid growing alarm over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza — even though the administration has yet to offer any criticism of Israel for strikes that have killed thousands of civilians there.
Blinken is also expected to press Israel to rein in violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank committed by Jewish settlers.
More than 3,700 Palestinian children have been killed in 25 days of fighting, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. Bombardment has driven more than half the territory’s 2.3 million people from their homes. Food, water and fuel are running low under Israel’s siege, and overwhelmed hospitals warn they are on the verge of collapse.
Israel has allowed more than 260 trucks carrying food and medicine into Gaza, but aid workers say it’s not nearly enough. Israeli authorities have refused to allow fuel in, saying Hamas is hoarding fuel for military use and would steal new supplies.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was not advocating for a general cease-fire but a “temporary, localized” pause.
Israel and the U.S. seem to have no clear plan for what would come next if Hamas rule in Gaza is brought down — a key question on Blinken’s agenda during the visit, according to the State Department.
GAZA CITY ENCIRCLED
Meanwhile, military officials said Israeli forces have now completely encircled Gaza City, a densely packed cluster of neighborhoods that Israel says is the center of Hamas military infrastructure and includes a vast network of underground tunnels, bunkers and command centers.
Israeli forces are “fighting in a built-up, dense, complex area,” said the military’s chief of staff, Herzi Halevy.
Hagari, the military spokesperson, said Israeli forces were in “face to face” battles with militants, calling in airstrikes and shelling when needed. He said they were inflicting heavy losses on Hamas fighters and destroying their infrastructure with engineering equipment.
Hamas’ military wing said early Friday that its fighters battled Israeli troops in several areas in Gaza and claimed they killed four soldiers on the northern edge of the city of Beit Lahiya. It also claimed to have destroyed several tanks with locally made anti-tank rockets.
Neither the reports from Israel nor Hamas could be independently verified.
Casualties on both sides were expected to rise as Israeli troops advance toward the dense residential neighborhoods of Gaza City. Israel has warned residents to immediately evacuate the Shati refugee camp, which borders Gaza City’s center.
But Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain in the path of fighting in northern Gaza, despite Israel’s repeated calls for them to flee. Many have crowded into U.N. facilities, hoping for safety.
Still, four U.N. schools-turned-shelter in northern Gaza and Bureij were hit in recent days, killing 24 people, according to Philippe Lazzarini, general-secretary of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.
In the occupied West Bank overnight, Israeli forces killed seven Palestinians in different places and arrested many more, according to the Israeli military and Palestinian health officials.
– Najib Jobain, Bassem Mroue and David Rising, AP News