TEL AVIV: President Joe Biden will make a landmark trip to Israel in an “ironclad” show of US support, as efforts to ease a spiralling humanitarian disaster in Gaza intensify.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the visit as a statement of “solidarity with Israel” and an “ironclad commitment to its security”, just days after Hamas fighters broke through the heavily fortified border, shooting, stabbing and burning to death more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
Biden’s visit will also seek to avert a regional conflagration with Hamas backer Iran, which on Monday warned of a possible “pre-emptive action” against Israel “in the coming hours”.
Repeated fire in recent days along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon has claimed lives on both sides and compounded fears of a regional spillover of the war.
Biden’s visit also comes amid frantic diplomatic efforts to ease the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza after waves of Israeli retaliatory air strikes on the Hamas-ruled enclave.
After Israel, Biden will travel to Jordan where he will meet Jordanian King Abdullah II, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi.
Under relentless Israeli bombardment, thousands of Gazans have died and international agencies warn millions more face dwindling supplies of water, food and fuel - even before a looming Israeli ground invasion.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli military leaders have signalled their intent to destroy Hamas and eradicate the threat it poses after the militant group’s attack which has been likened to 9/11.
Tens of thousands of regular Israeli troops and reservists have amassed at the border waiting for the order to go in.
An Israeli military spokesman said it was unclear how Biden’s visit might change the timing of an Israeli ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Several notable Hamas figures have already been killed in air strikes, including, on Monday, Osama Mazini, who the Israeli Air Force said was part of a top council and “responsible for Hamas prisoners.”
Hamas is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and several other Western governments, while Israel has likened it to the Daesh (Islamic State) group.
But the air strikes have flattened entire neighbourhoods in the blockaded Gaza Strip and killed at least 2,750 people, most of them civilians.
The bombardment, coupled with an Israeli order to evacuate the north of the Gaza Strip that borders Israel, has forced more than a million Palestinians to flee their homes for the south of the enclave since the 10-day conflict began, according to the UN agency serving Palestinian agencies (UNRWA).
International aid agencies have called for aid to urgently be allowed into the territory, and for Gaza’s border with Egypt to be open to allow civilians to leave.
World Health Organisation regional director Ahmad Al Mandhari told AFP that Gaza was barrelling toward “real catastrophe”.
“There are 24 hours of water, electricity and fuel left” he said.
‘Out of harm’s way’
Washington has backed Israel’s right to strike back at Hamas, but it has also urged measures to ease the impact on ordinary Palestinians caught in the crossfire.
Speaking after marathon talks with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Blinken signalled there was no firm agreement yet on humanitarian relief.
But there was a “commitment” to work on a nascent plan ahead of and during Biden’s visit, he said.
“At our request, the United States and Israel have agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multilateral organizations to reach civilians in Gaza,” Blinken said.
He said the two sides were discussing the “possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians out of harm’s way.”
Blinken said the US president hopes to “hear from Israel how it will conduct its operations in a way that minimises civilian casualties and enables humanitarian assistance to flow to civilians in Gaza in a way that does not benefit Hamas.”
Israel has issued an ultimatum to more than one million people in northern Gaza that they should flee ahead of an expected ground offensive.
Entire families, young children and the elderly have packed what belongings they can to flee to the southern Gaza Strip, bedding down in any available space, indoors and out.
In the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza the normal population of 400,000 has roughly doubled.
Thousands more Palestinians have massed at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in an effort to flee.
“The situation is catastrophic beyond what I could have imagined,” said Jamil Abdullah, a Palestinian-Swede who is hoping to leave after being forced to sleep on the street.
“There are corpses in the streets. Buildings are crashing down on their inhabitants. Blood is everywhere. The smell of the dead is everywhere.”
AFP reporters in Gaza said morgues were overflowing, and corpses wrapped in white body bags were even being stored in an icecream truck.
But Gazans are effectively trapped, with neighbouring Arab nations fearful that if Palestinians leave the Strip they could be permanently exiled.
In Israel, about 500,000 people have been displaced or evacuated from communities around the Gaza Strip and Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the Israeli military said Tuesday.
Across the country Israelis are still reeling from what is the worst attack in the country’s 75-year history, and one that shattered faith in the country’s government and much-vaulted security forces.
Merav Leshem Gonen is among those still anxiously waiting for news of loved ones.
Her daughter was kidnapped at a music festival near the Gaza border on October 7, one of hundreds of hostages taken by Hamas or other groups.
“We don’t know anything else. She’s missing. That’s all we know, and we want her back alive. We want her to come back healthy,” she said.
Hamas’s military wing has said the group was holding 200 people, with about 50 more held by other “resistance factions and in other places”.
A video on the Hamas’s official Telegram channel purported to show “one of the prisoners in Gaza” - a young woman speaking Hebrew and receiving treatment to an arm injury.
According to the caption, she was abducted on October 7. The video has not been verified by AFP.
‘Time running out’?
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the entire Middle East region was “on the verge of the abyss”.
There are deep fears that the conflict could spread to the Palestinian West Bank or to Lebanon, drawing regional foes deeper into the conflict.
Israel on Tuesday said it had launched strikes overnight on Hezbollah “terrorist” targets in Lebanon.
Iran backs Hezbollah and Hamas, but has denied involvement in the October 7 attack.
It has warned Israel about the potential for the conflict to spread in the volatile region.
Western governments, including Germany whose chancellor heads to Israel on Tuesday, have urged Tehran not to fan the flames of the conflict.
“Lebanese officials have a responsibility... to do everything possible to prevent Lebanon from being dragged into” a war with Israel, France’s Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said in Beirut Monday.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said “time is running out for political solutions”.