Arab world, US split on Gaza ceasefire as Israeli offensive presses on

The United States and its Arab allies appeared divided over Israel’s military offensive in Gaza to defeat Hamas, as Washington, alongside Israel, resisted pressure for an immediate ceasefire despite the rising death toll among Palestinian civilians, Reuters reports

In a rare display of a public split, Arab foreign ministers at a press conference pushed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to persuade Israel to agree to a ceasefire. The top US diplomat, however, dismissed the idea, saying such a halt would only benefit Hamas, allowing the militant Islamist Palestinian group to regroup and attack again.

Blinken is set on Sunday to resume his Middle East trip, his second to the region since the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict reignited on Oct. 7 when fighters from Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, burst over the border into Israel, killing 1,400 people and taking more than 240 others hostage.

Israel has since struck Gaza from the air, imposed a siege and launched a ground assault, stirring global alarm at humanitarian conditions in the enclave and, Gaza health officials said on Saturday, killing more than 9,488 Palestinians.

Palestinian news agency WAFA said 51 Palestinians, mostly women and children, were killed and scores wounded in an Israeli bombardment of Gaza’s Maghazi refugee camp on Saturday night. Reuters could not independently verify the WAFA report.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The growing number of civilian deaths has intensified international calls for a ceasefire, but Washington, like Israel, has so far dismissed them, even though it has sought to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to accept localized pauses. The Israeli leader rejected that idea after he met Blinken on Friday.

On Saturday, when asked by reporters if there was any progress on achieving a humanitarian pause, U.S. President Joe Biden said “Yes” and gave a thumbs-up as he departed a church in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

But it was unclear how long the Biden administration could resist such calls, with pro-Palestinian demonstrators staging protests on Saturday in cities around the world, including London, Berlin, Paris, Istanbul and Washington, to demand a ceasefire.

“This war is just going to produce more pain for Palestinians, for Israelis, and this is going to push us all again into the abyss of hatred and dehumanisation,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in a joint news conference with Blinken. “So that needs to stop.”

Palestinian witnesses said Israel hit Al-Fakhoura school in Jabalia, where thousands of evacuees were living, earlier on Saturday. The Israeli military said a preliminary inquiry suggested it had not targeted the location “but the explosion may have been a result of IDF (Israel Defence Forces) fire aimed at another target”.

Arab leaders have also appeared reluctant to make comprehensive comments about the future of Gaza, saying the focus should remain on stopping the war and that it wasn’t possible to know what the enclave would look like once the fighting stopped.

“This is premature at this time,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said at the same news conference. “You have to concentrate on the subject at hand,” he said, referring to humanitarian aid for Gaza and the cessation of hostilities.

CONCERNS OVER WEST BANK

Blinken also voiced concern over the escalating violence in the occupied West Bank against Palestinian civilians. “This has been a serious problem that’s only worsened since the conflict,” the US diplomat said, adding that he raised it on Friday in his meetings with Israeli officials.

“Perpetrators must be held accountable,” said Blinken, who is expected to arrive in Ankara late on Sunday and hold meetings with senior Turkish officials the next day.

This year had already been the deadliest for West Bank residents in at least 15 years, with some 200 Palestinians and 26 Israelis killed, according to United Nations data. Another 121 West Bank Palestinians have been killed since the Oct 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

Daily attacks by Israeli settlers have more than doubled, UN figures show, even though most of the deaths have occurred during clashes with IDF soldiers.

The Israeli military said it was trying to stem violence and protect Palestinian civilians.

The worsening violence in the West Bank has fuelled concerns that the flashpoint Palestinian territory could become a third front in a wider war, in addition to Israel’s northern border where clashes with Lebanese Hezbollah forces have mounted.

Smoke rises above the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel’s border with Gaza in southern Israel, November 4, 2023.

ENCIRCLING GAZA CITY

US Special Envoy David Satterfield on Saturday said in Amman that between 800,000 to a million people had moved to the south of the Gaza Strip, while 350,000-400,000 others remained in northern Gaza City and its environs.

Israel last month ordered all civilians to leave the northern part of Gaza, including Gaza City, and head to the southern part of the enclave.

The Israeli military said it would enable Palestinians to travel on a main Gaza highway, the Salah a-Din road, during a three-hour window on Saturday. Several residents told Reuters they were too afraid to use the road. Many posted warnings on social media that Israeli tanks were stationed there.

Israeli officials told a CNN reporter embedded with Israeli forces who moved about a kilometer into the Gaza Strip that they were encircling Gaza City in the northern part of the densely-populated enclave and cutting it off from the southern part.

Fighting was “fierce” near an Israeli outpost on the outskirts of Gaza City, CNN reported, saying Israeli soldiers were battling Hamas fighters hundreds of meters to the north and south. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background of footage filmed at the outpost.

“IDF will be here as long as it takes – weeks, months, years – until it makes sure that Israel is safe and secure … If we need to get inside Gaza house-by-house, it’s exactly what’s going to happen,” one Israeli soldier told CNN.

Israeli forces faced ambushes from underground tunnels, CNN said, adding that 29 soldiers had died since Israel launched its ground offensive.

The network cited Israeli soldiers as saying they were trying to secure a humanitarian corridor to help civilians flee the fighting.

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