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Blinken due in Israel for difficult Gaza talks

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TEL AVIV,  Israel—Top US diplomat Antony Blinken was due in Israel on Monday for difficult talks on the war in Gaza as fears grow that the conflict could engulf the wider region.

Speaking in Qatar on Sunday, Blinken said that Palestinians displaced by the now four-month-old war must be allowed to “return home”, while warning that the violence could “easily metastasize” into a regional conflict.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, violence has escalated in the occupied West Bank and on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, while Yemen’s Huthi rebels have launched more than 100 drone and missile strikes towards targets in the Red Sea and Israel.

On his fourth tour of the region since the war began, the US secretary of state was scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Monday before arriving in Israel, where he will hold talks with Israeli leaders on Tuesday.

The United States is Israel’s main ally and provides it with billions of dollars in military aid, but it has grown increasingly concerned over the mounting civilian death toll in the conflict.

Washington has said that Blinken will press Israel on its compliance with international humanitarian law and ask for “immediate measures” to boost aid to Gaza.

The Hamas-run ministry of health said Monday eight people had been killed in an Israeli strike near Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza.

The war in Gaza started with Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in about 1,140 deaths, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The militants, considered a “terrorist” group by the United States and European Union, also took around 250 hostages, 132 of whom remain in captivity, according to Israel. At least 24 of them are believed to have been killed.

Israel has responded with relentless bombardment and a ground invasion that have killed at least 22,835 people, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.

At least 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have been displaced by fighting, according to UN figures.

“I wake up thinking this is a passing nightmare, but it is a reality,” said Gaza resident Nabil Fathi, 51.

“Our home and my son’s home have been destroyed and we have 20 people martyred in our family. I don’t know where we will go even if I survive.”

Two journalists working for the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network were killed on Sunday when their car was struck in southern Gaza’s city of Rafah, near the border with Egypt, the broadcaster said.

They were named as Mustafa Thuria, a video stringer who also worked for AFP and other media organisations, and Hamza Wael Dahdouh, the son of Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief who had earlier lost his wife and two other children in an Israeli strike.

Witnesses told AFP that two rockets were fired at the car — one hit the front of the vehicle and the other hit Hamza who was sitting next to the driver.

The Israeli army told AFP that it had “struck a terrorist who operated an aircraft that posed a threat to IDF troops”, adding that it was “aware of the reports that during the strike, two other suspects who were in the same vehicle as the terrorist were also hit”.

In Qatar, Blinken condemned the deaths as an “unimaginable tragedy”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 79 journalists and media professionals, the vast majority Palestinian, have been killed since the start of the war.

International aid groups said Israeli attacks on one of Gaza’s last functioning hospitals had forced them to evacuate.

The World Health Organization said Sunday it had evacuated more than 600 patients from the Al-Aqsa hospital in central Gaza following “troubling reports of increasing hostilities”.

Doctors Without Borders said a day earlier it had evacuated its staff from the same hospital after a bullet penetrated a wall in the intensive care unit.

The Israeli army — which claims to have “dismantled” Hamas’s military leadership in northern Gaza — reported killing more “terrorists” in central Gaza, including in a drone strike in the Bureij refugee camp.

A military statement said troops had discovered an underground “weapons production site” in the besieged Gaza Strip’s north operated by Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed again at a cabinet meeting on Sunday that “what happened on October 7 will not happen again”.

“This is the commitment of my government and this is the reason why our soldiers in the field are giving their lives. We must continue until total victory,” he said.

In the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967, deadly violence has surged to levels unseen in nearly two decades.

An Israeli strike on Sunday killed seven Palestinians in the northern city of Jenin, the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry said, also reporting an eighth fatality by Israeli fire in a separate incident.

An Israeli border police officer was killed when a roadside bomb hit her vehicle during a raid on Jenin, and an Israeli civilian was killed in a separate shooting near Ramallah, Israeli officials said.

Later, Israeli police said that officers responding to a car-ramming attack at a West Bank checkpoint shot a Palestinian girl, with medics confirming the three-year-old child’s death.

Violence persisted along Israel’s northern border, with Hezbollah saying on Saturday it had fired 62 rockets at an Israeli military base, days after it blamed Israel for a strike in Beirut that killed Hamas’s deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri.

The Israeli military said it had struck Hezbollah “military sites” in response, while army spokesman Daniel Hagari warned the Hamas ally against “dragging Lebanon into an unnecessary war.”

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