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Blinken on diplomacy push as Israel says war will go on

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to meet Israeli leaders in his quest to prevent the Gaza conflict from spreading in the Middle East, as the Israeli military said its fight against Hamas would continue all year.

Mr Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv late yesterday to brief Israeli officials on his two days of talks with Arab leaders on ending the war, which was triggered by Hamas militants’ attack on 7 October that by Israeli tallies killed about 1,200 people.

He also said he would press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on the absolute imperative to do more to protect civilians and to do more to make sure that humanitarian assistance is getting into the hands of those who need it”.

The Israeli offensive has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, destroyed much of Gaza and displaced most of the population of 2.3 million, creating a worsening humanitarian crisis.

In the latest sign that the war may be spreading, Israel killed a top commander of Hamas’ ally Hezbollah in south Lebanon yesterday, sources familiar with the group’s operations said.

Sources with direct knowledge of the matter said Israel is also carrying out an unprecedented wave of deadly strikes in Syria targeting cargo trucks, infrastructure and people involved in Iran’s weapons lifeline to its proxies in the region.

Read more about the Israel-Hamas conflict

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told the Wall Street Journal his country was determined to end Hamas’ rule of Gaza and deter other Iran-backed adversaries.

However Israel has come under growing pressure from the United States, its closest ally, and Arab leaders to scale back the assault.

US President Joe Biden, confronted by protesters shouting “ceasefire now” while visiting an historic black church in South Carolina, said he had been “quietly” working to encourage Israel to ease its attacks.

Israeli officials have said the operation is entering a new phase of more targeted warfare, but there was no respite in the fighting.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said a “different mix of forces” was pursuing holdout Hamas fighters in the north as “intense operational activity” focused on central Gaza and around the southern city of Khan Younis.

“Handling tough battles in both the centre and south,” Mr Hagari said. “The fighting will continue through 2024.”

US says displaced people must return

Israel must allow displaced Palestinian civilians to return to their homes in Gaza, Mr Blinken said in response to calls by right-wing members of Israel’s ruling coalition for them to move elsewhere.

Israel says Hamas still holds more than 100 hostages of the 240 seized on 7 October.

Yesterday, Israeli forces bombarded the eastern part of Khan Younis and the central Gaza Strip amid ground clashes, residents said. Israel said four soldiers were killed in Gaza yesterday, bringing its total war losses there to 182.

An estimated 1.9 million Gazans have been displaced, according to the United Nations

The Israeli military also said it had bombed an arms cache, uncovered a tunnel shaft in central Gaza and killed at least 10 militant fighters in Khan Younis.

Hamas’ military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters fired missiles at Tel Aviv in response to what it called the “Zionist massacres against civilians”.

Mr Blinken flew to Tel Aviv after talks in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to try to chart a way out of the bloodiest chapter ever of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

It is the US officials fourth mission to the region since October.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi oasis town of Al Ula, Mr Blinken said he still found support among Arab leaders for Israel’s goal of normalising relations.

But that will “require that the conflict end in Gaza” and “a practical pathway to a Palestinian state,” said Mr Blinken, who held talks in Jordan and Qatar on Sunday.

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