Blinken during his talks with King Abdullah in Amman on January 7, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

GAZA STRIP: The Israel-Hamas war raging in Gaza entered its fourth month on Sunday as the army again pounded the besieged Palestinian territory and US top diplomat Antony Blinken was back in the region seeking to avoid a wider escalation.

Israeli airstrikes overnight and early on Sunday killed at least 64 people in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory, said its health ministry.

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Blinken assured King Abdullah that Washington opposes the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza or the occupied West Bank.

The King had raised Jordan’s concerns over displacement in the meeting, according to a palace statement.

In his meeting with King Abdullah in Amman, Blinken “stressed US opposition to forcible displacement of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and the critical need to protect Palestinian civilians in the West Bank from extremist settler violence,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Jordan’s king urged the top United States diplomat to push for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and an end to the humanitarian crisis brought by three months of war, the royal palace said.

King Abdullah II made the remarks to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is on a Middle East tour aiming to ensure the Israel-Hamas war does not spread.

The war that began on October 7 with an unprecedented attack against Israel by Gaza-based Hamas militants triggered relentless retaliatory bombardment by Israel, leaving Gazans desperately in need of humanitarian aid.

King Abdullah warned Blinken against “the catastrophic repercussions of continuation of the aggression against Gaza, underlining the necessity of ending the tragic humanitarian crisis” there, a statement from the royal palace said.

A Palestinian child, who fled their home due to Israeli strikes, shelters in a tent camp, amid the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, January 6, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

The king reiterated “the important role of the United States in bringing pressure for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, protection of civilians, and guaranteeing delivery” of medical and humanitarian aid.

Washington has twice exercised its veto at the United Nations Security Council over ceasefire calls, drawing outrage in the Arab world, and Blinken has bypassed Congress to rush weapons to Israel.

He and other US officials have, however, become increasingly vocal about the need for Israel to protect civilians in Gaza, where the Hamas-run health ministry says 22,835 people have been killed since October 7.

More aid

Blinken, who is seeking to get more aid into besieged Gaza, visited the World Food Programme’s regional coordination warehouse near the Jordanian capital.

Inside the warehouse, stocked with pallets of canned food aid, the senior UN official in Jordan, Sheri Ritsema-Anderson, described the situation in Gaza as unlike anything she had seen during 15 years in the Middle East.

It is “catastrophic,” she told reporters.

Blinken said “it is imperative that we maximise assistance to people in need”, by getting the aid in and distributing it effectively.

“We’ll be working on that as well in the days to come,” he said at the warehouse.

King Abdullah, whose country signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, also reaffirmed the need for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian question and underlined Jordan’s “total rejection” of any forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Washington also insists on a two-state solution, something rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some of whose cabinet members have called for Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza to leave.

Israeli bombardment also claimed other civilian lives in the southern city of Khan Younis and in the Rafah area near the Egyptian border, where many of the territory’s displaced people have sought refuge, AFP correspondents reported.

Relatives were mourning the dead at Khan Younis’ European Hospital, among them Mohamed Awad, who wept over the body of a 12-year-old boy and listed other family members killed.

“My brother, his wife, his children, his relatives and the brothers of his wife — there are more than 20 martyrs,” he said.

The Israeli army — which said on Saturday it had “dismantled” Hamas’s military leadership in northern Gaza — reported that its forces had killed more “terrorists” in central Gaza, including in a drone strike in the Bureij refugee camp, a built-up urban area.

The military added it had disabled dozens of rocket launchers at a compound in northern Gaza’s Beit Lahia area, from where Palestinian militants have been targeting communities in southern Israel.

During the Gaza war, violence has also flared between Israel and Lebanon’s Iran-backed armed group Hezbollah, which have traded almost daily cross-border fire since the war started.

A recent flareup in tensions and border hostilities had sparked “real concern”, US Secretary of State said ahead of a Jordan visit on Sunday.

“We want to do everything possible to make sure that we don’t see escalation there”, Blinken said on his fourth trip to the Middle East since the October 7 Hamas attacks that began the war.

Blinken warned of the need to end an “endless cycle of violence”.

Deadly violence also flared again in the occupied West Bank, where bloodshed has surged to levels unseen in nearly two decades.

An early morning Israeli strike in Jenin killed six Palestinians, while an Israeli border police officer died when a roadside bomb hit her vehicle Sunday, sources on both sides said.

The army later reported an Israeli civilian was shot dead near the West Bank city of Ramallah, and that police were searching for the attacker.

‘Unnecessary war’

The war in Gaza was triggered by an unprecedented attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The militants also took around 250 hostages, 132 of whom remain in captivity, according to Israel. At least 24 are believed to have been killed.

In response, Israel is carrying out a relentless bombardment and ground invasion that have killed at least 22,835 people, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed again that Israel would continue its campaign to “eliminate Hamas, return our hostages and ensure that Gaza will no longer be a threat to Israel”.

Families and friends of the hostages again rallied in Tel Aviv late Saturday, demanding steps leading to their release but many also voicing anger at his government.

The Netanyahu government is “ruining Israel and they are destroying everything we hoped and dreamed of,” one demonstrator, Shachaf Netzer, 54, told AFP.

“Everybody here wants an election.”

On Israel’s tense northern border with Lebanon, Hezbollah on Saturday said it had fired 62 rockets at an Israeli military base, days after a strike in Beirut killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al Aruri.

A US Defence Department official told AFP that Israel carried out the strike that killed Al Aruri.

The Israeli military said it had struck Hezbollah “military sites” in response to the rocket barrage, while army spokesman Daniel Hagari warned the Shiite armed group against “dragging Lebanon into an unnecessary war”.

Top Western diplomats, also including EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, were in the region as part of a fresh push to address mounting fears of a wider conflict and to boost the flow of aid into Gaza.

Borrell visited Beirut on Saturday, where he met members of Hezbollah’s political wing, and was next headed to Saudi Arabia where he planned to discuss “a joint EU-Arab initiative” for peace.

Civilians in Gaza have borne the brunt of the conflict that has reduced swathes of the coastal territory to rubble and triggered a deepening humanitarian crisis.

“Gaza has simply become uninhabitable,” UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said on Friday.