Top US diplomat Antony Blinken left Israel largely empty-handed Friday after urging its leaders to do more to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza during their war to destroy Hamas.
On Saturday, he is due to hold talks in neighbouring Jordan with the foreign ministers of five Arab countries who have expressed mounting concern and anger over the civilian death toll from the conflict, now entering its fifth week.
After meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken said he had discussed the idea of “humanitarian pauses” to secure the release of hostages and to allow aid to be distributed to Gaza’s beleaguered population.
“We believe that each of these efforts would be facilitated by humanitarian pauses, by arrangements on the ground that increase security for civilians and permit the more effective and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Blinken told journalists.
And he reiterated Washington’s long-standing support for the eventual recognition of a Palestinian state: “Two states for two peoples. Again, that is the only way to ensure lasting security for a Jewish and democratic Israel.”
Netanyahu, however, warned that there could be no “temporary truce” in Gaza unless Hamas releases the estimated 241 Israeli and foreign hostages it took during its October 7 attacks.
Both Israel and the United States have previously ruled out a blanket ceasefire, which they say would allow Hamas to regroup and resupply, but US President Joe Biden has backed “temporary, localised” pauses.
Israel, meanwhile, began expelling thousands of Palestinian workers back to Gaza, despite ongoing fighting and air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians.
Israeli forces have urged Gazans to head south from Gaza City towards the southern end of the territory to escape the worst of the fighting, but the Hamas-run health ministry said that 14 fleeing Palestinians, including women and children, had been killed making this journey.
Witnesses said the strike hit Gaza’s coastal road, which the Israeli military has previously told civilians to take to travel south.
– ‘Utterly shocked’ –
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “utterly shocked” by a deadly Israeli strike on an ambulance near Gaza’s largest hospital.
An AFP journalist saw multiple bodies beside the damaged ambulance outside Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital, which in addition to wounded people is overcrowded with civilians seeking shelter from Israeli bombing. The health ministry said 13 people were killed.
The Hamas government said Israeli forces hit “a convoy of ambulances which was transporting the wounded” from Gaza City towards the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
The Israeli military said it had launched an air strike on “an ambulance that was identified by forces as being used by a Hamas terrorist cell in close proximity to their position in the battle zone”.
Egypt’s health ministry said just 17 wounded Palestinians were evacuated for treatment in Egyptian hospitals Friday instead of the 28 originally planned because of the “events” at Al-Shifa.
The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, blamed the United States for the conflict as he broke weeks of silence amid concerns of a broader regional conflagration.
“America is entirely responsible for the ongoing war on Gaza and its people, and Israel is simply a tool of execution,” he said in a televised broadcast, accusing Washington of impeding “a ceasefire and the end of the aggression”.
Nasrallah warned Israel against attacking Lebanon and said the possibility of “total war is realistic”.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Hezbollah “should not try to take advantage of the ongoing conflict”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hezbollah it would “pay an unimaginable price” for any misstep.
The fighting was triggered by Hamas’s bloody raids on October 7, which Israeli officials say killed more than 1,400 people, mainly civilians.
The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says more than 9,227 people have died in Israeli bombardments, mostly women and children.
– Workers expelled –
After the Hamas assault, Israeli forces moved to re-establish security on the border, trapping thousands of Palestinian workers inside Israel.
On Friday, officials began to force them back into Gaza, AFP journalists at the Karem Abu Salem crossing saw.
“Thousands of workers who were blocked in Israel since October 7 have been brought back,” the head of Gaza’s crossings authority, Hisham Adwan, told AFP.
Israel had said it would start sending the workers back to Gaza.
“Israel is severing all contact with Gaza. There will be no more Palestinian workers from Gaza,” the Israeli security cabinet said on Thursday.
The United Nations Human Rights Office said it was “deeply concerned” about the expulsions.
“They are being sent back, we don’t know exactly to where,” and whether they “even have a home to go to”, spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell told a news conference in Geneva.
Before the war started, some 18,500 Gazans held Israeli work permits, according to Israeli defence officials, but it was not clear how many were in the country on October 7.
Before his departure, Blinken said he would seek to ensure that harm to Palestinian civilians is reduced, in a visible shift of tone for the United States, which has promised full support and ramped-up military aid to Israel.
But, beginning his visit with talks with President Isaac Herzog, Blinken reiterated the basis of its support, telling reporters: “Israel has not only the right but the obligation to defend itself … to make sure that this October 7 never happens again.”
Netanyahu said Israel had already had some “very impressive successes” with troops “more than on the outskirts of Gaza City. We are advancing,” he said late Thursday at a base near Tel Aviv.
Israel’s military describes Gaza City as “the centre of the Hamas terror organisation”.
Although many of the city’s half-a-million residents fled south following Israel’s warning to leave ahead of a ground operation, those who stayed behind have endured weeks of aerial bombardment, dwindling supplies and daily carnage.
– ‘Curse of history’ –
But yet more mayhem may lie ahead, as the conflict turns to urban and underground warfare — with Hamas fighting from a tunnel complex believed to span hundreds of kilometres (miles).
The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, insisted Israeli soldiers would go home “in black bags”.
“Gaza will be the curse of history for Israel,” spokesman Abu Obeida said.
Israel’s allies have backed its right to self-defence, but there is growing global concern and anger at how Israel has chosen to prosecute the war.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar expressed concern that Israel’s response had gone beyond tackling Hamas in self-defence and now “resembles something more approaching revenge”.