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Blinken pursues Gaza truce as Israel presses onslaught

4 min

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met the main mediators in Gaza peace talks on Tuesday during a lightning trip to four countries in under 24 hours in hot pursuit of the war's first extended truce.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Qatar's Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at Lusail Palace, in Doha, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. Mark Schiefelbein, Reuters 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met the main mediators in Gaza peace talks on Tuesday during a lightning trip to four countries in under 24 hours in hot pursuit of the war's first extended truce.

The top U.S. diplomat began the day in Saudi Arabia before jetting to first to Cairo and then Doha to meet the rulers of Egypt and Qatar, mediators in talks that conveyed a truce offer to Hamas last week. He was due in Israel shortly after midnight.

U.S. officials say they do not know if a ceasefire is within reach during the trip, but it is the first serious attempt since the war began four months ago to halt the fighting for longer than a matter of days.

Israel, which is pressing on with its offensive deep into parts of the Gaza Strip now sheltering hundreds of thousands of people displaced from earlier fighting, said its forces had killed dozens of Palestinian gunmen in the past 24 hours.

Palestinians hope Blinken's talks will nail down a ceasefire before Israeli forces storm Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are sheltering, mainly in public buildings and tents made from sheets of plastic, hard against the border with Egypt.

Blinken met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha. He and the emir exchanged banter about soccer in front of reporters before heading into talks.

On Monday he met the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia - crucial to Washington's plan to frame peace in Gaza as part of a wider initiative to reconcile Israel and its Arab neighbours. He meets Israeli leaders and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority on Wednesday.

The deal, drawn up more than a week ago by U.S. and Israeli spy chiefs at a meeting with the Egyptians and Qataris, would secure the release of remaining hostages held by militants in Gaza in return for a long pause to fighting. Hamas says it must produce a definitive end to the war; Israel says it will not halt the war permanently until Hamas is destroyed.

There was no immediate word from any side whether Blinken's talks in Riyadh and Cairo had yielded progress.

"(It's) impossible to say if we’ll get a breakthrough, when we’ll get a breakthrough – and I mean the United States broadly, not the Secretary – on those talks, whether it will happen on this trip or it’ll come later," a U.S. official said on Monday. "It’s one of those things where we don’t know because the ball right now is in Hamas’s court."

REGIONAL TENSIONS

A Hamas official who asked not to be identified reiterated to Reuters on Tuesday that the Palestinian Islamist movement would not allow any hostage releases without guarantees that the war will end and Israeli forces leave Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel will fight on until Hamas is wiped out. But there is also a growing Israeli movement demanding more effort to bring the hostages home, even if that means a deal with Hamas.

A poll released by a nonpartisan think-tank, the Israel Democracy Institute, found 51% of respondents believe recovering the hostages should be the main goal of the war, while 36% said it should be toppling Hamas.

Sources close to the talks say the truce would last at least 40 days, during which militants would free civilians among remaining hostages they hold. Further phases would follow, to hand over soldiers and dead bodies of hostages, in exchange for releases of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

The only truce so far, in November, was agreed for just four days and extended to last a week. At the time, Hamas released 110 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Blinken also hopes to prevent further escalation in the Middle East, after U.S. air strikes on armed proxies of Iran, which backs Hamas, and further attacks on Red Sea shipping by Yemen's Tehran-aligned Houthi militia.

Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi said on Tuesday the group would seek to escalate further unless the assault on Gaza ends.

Gaza's Health Ministry said at least 27,585 Palestinians had now been confirmed killed in Israel's military campaign, with thousands more feared buried under rubble. Some 107 had been killed in the past 24 hours, the ministry said.

Israel says 226 of its soldiers have been killed in its offensive, launched after militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel.

RELENTLESS PRESSURE

Israeli forces on Tuesday kept up pressure on Khan Younis, the main southern city they have been trying to capture for weeks. Aerial and tank bombardment thundered through the city overnight, with at least 14 people killed by air strikes since the pre-dawn hours, Palestinian residents and medics said.

Rafah, just south of it, was also hit by air strikes and tank shelling. Palestinian health officials said the dead there included six policemen whose car was hit.

Israeli leaders say Rafah is now a bastion of Hamas combat units and vowed last week to push into the town next, alarming international aid agencies who say a million displaced civilians would be in harm's way, pinned against the border fence.

One Israeli official told Reuters efforts were under way to coordinate any ground assault with Egypt, including plans to evacuate displaced Palestinians northwards.

Mahmoud Amer and his family had pitched their tent in a cemetery in Rafah, hoping they would be safer living among the dead, including the war's victims in freshly dug graves.

"It's better than living in residential areas where the houses could collapse on our heads," said Amer. "There is no water, no proper aid coming in. The situation is so bad. The dead are in comfort, while we, the living, are in pain."

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Doha and Humeyra Pamuk in Cairo

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