US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) talks with Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (left) as part of their meeting in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2024, during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. Image Credit: AFP

TEL AVIV: More than three months into the deadliest ever Gaza war, US top diplomat Antony Blinken urged Israel on Tuesday to “avoid further civilian harm” in the besieged Palestinian territory.

In a Tel Aviv meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the secretary of state reaffirmed US “support for Israel’s right to prevent the terrorist attacks of October 7 from being repeated”, said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

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But Blinken also “stressed the importance of avoiding further civilian harm and protecting civilian infrastructure in Gaza”, said Miller about the Hamas-run territory where more than 23,000 people have died in the war, local health officials say.

For the longer term, Miller said, Blinken “reiterated the need to ensure lasting, sustainable peace for Israel and the region, including by the realisation of a Palestinian state”.

Netanyahu met Blinken — who was on his fourth round of Middle East crisis diplomacy since the war broke out — on a day when the Israeli army again bombed Gaza and battled Hamas fighters.

An AFP correspondent reported intense strikes overnight in Khan Younis and Rafah, the biggest cities in the south of Gaza which are crowded with internally displaced people.

The army said its forces had killed 40 militants over the past 24 hours in “expanded ground operations including air strikes” in Khan Younis, and that troops had seized AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and other weapons.

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas gunmen launched their October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants of Hamas, considered a “terrorist” group by the United States and European Union, also took around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 of them remain captive, including at least 25 believed to have been killed.

Israel has responded with relentless bombardment and a ground invasion of Gaza that have killed at least 23,210 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

The Israeli army says its death toll inside Gaza had risen to 185 after nine soldiers were killed on Monday.

‘Heavy price’

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, speaking in Qatar on Tuesday, argued that the October 7 attack “came after an attempt to marginalise the Palestinian cause”.

He charged that, “despite the heavy price, the massacres and the war of genocide, it (Israel) failed to achieve any of its goals.”

In further comments, released later by Hamas in Gaza, he called on Muslim states “to support the resistance with weapons, because this is... not the battle of the Palestinian people alone”.

The war has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.4 million people, and the United Nations says many are at risk of famine and disease.

With only minimal aid entering Gaza, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem charged that “everyone in Gaza is going hungry” as the “direct results of Israel’s declared policy”.

Since the war started, fears have also grown of an escalating conflict between Israel and its other regional enemies, a loose alliance of Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Israel has traded cross-border fire with Hezbollah for three months and more recently killed senior operatives of the Shiite militant group as well as of Hamas on Lebanese soil.

Hezbollah said Tuesday it had launched a drone attack on Israel’s “northern command centre” in Safed as part of its response to the killings of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri and Hezbollah field commander Wissam Tawil.

The Israeli army confirmed that a “hostile aircraft” had come down at one of its bases in the north and said that “no injuries or damage were reported”.

The Israeli army also said Monday it had killed a “central” Hamas figure in Syria, Hassan Akasha, who had led “terrorist cells which fired rockets... toward Israeli territory”.

‘Culture of hatred’

Blinken also voiced hope that, after the war, Israel could push on with its efforts towards regional integration, following its US-brokered normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and other states.

“I think there actually are real opportunities there, but we have to get through this very challenging moment,” Blinken said after meeting Foreign Minister Israel Katz on the latest leg of a tour that has already taken him to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

As the ground offensive continues, the Israeli army has claimed to have largely achieved military control over northern Gaza, and said that the war is now entering a new phase.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari, speaking to The New York Times, said the next phase would involve fewer soldiers and air strikes and that a troop reduction had already begun this month.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, speaking in Cairo, also stressed the need for “less intensive” combat and greater aid flows, while reiterating Berlin’s solid support for Israel.

Her Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry voiced fears about the displacement of Palestinians and said “two million citizens cannot remain trapped in one spot in the south in this way”.

Baerbock stressed that “we will not accept displacement. We will not accept it in the West Bank, we will not accept it in Gaza.”

Violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli police confirmed three people were killed Monday during a raid on Tulkarem to arrest a “wanted terrorist”.

Israeli army raids and settler attacks in the West Bank have killed at least 333 people since October 7, according to the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of a “brutal crime” after footage shared on social media appeared to show a military vehicle running over a dead militant in Tulkarem, an incident the officials said summed up a “culture of hatred” fostered by Israeli forces.