Blinken lands in Saudi Arabia for fifth Middle East trip to press for Gaza talks
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday for another Middle East crisis tour, hoping to secure a new truce to Israel's war on Gaza which has persisted amid ceasefire proposal.
On his fifth trip to the region since Hamas's 7 October attack on southern Israel, Blinken landed in Riyadh and was later expected to visit Israel and mediators Egypt and Qatar.
Ahead of the trip he stressed the need for "urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza", after aid groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the devastating impact nearly four months of war have had on the besieged Gaza Strip.
"The situation is indescribable," said Said Hamouda, a Palestinian who fled his home to the southern Gaza city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.
Dubbed a "pressure cooker of despair" by the United Nations, Rafah now hosts more than half of Gaza's population, displaced due to Israel's assault.
Over the weekend, Israel pressed further south towards the densely-crowded border city, warning that its ground forces could advance on Rafah as part of the campaign to eradicate Hamas.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "a complete victory will deal a fatal blow" to Hamas but also to other Iran-backed militant groups across the region.
At least 128 people were killed in Israeli strikes overnight to Monday, according to Gaza's health authorities.
Witnesses told AFP they heard artillery shelling in the areas of eastern Rafah and Khan Younis, where Israel believes high-ranking Hamas officials are hiding.
Hamas reported Israeli bombardment across the centre and south of the coastal strip, and the group's armed wing said its militants attacked troops near Gaza City.
The Israeli military said forces in northern and central Gaza had killed "hundreds of terrorists" over the past week, and were engaging with Hamas militants in the Khan Younis.
Blinken is expected to discuss a truce framework not yet signed off on by either Hamas or Israel.
The protracted diplomatic efforts have become more urgent with a surge in attacks across the region by Iran-backed Hamas allies, triggering counterattacks by the United States and its partners.
The war was sparked by Hamas's unprecedented 7 October attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Militants also seized around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza - including 28 believed to have been killed, according to updated figures from the prime minister's office.
Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,478 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.
The proposed truce would pause fighting for an initial six weeks as Hamas frees hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and more aid enters Gaza, according to a Hamas source.
Netanyahu, who has faced divisions within his cabinet and public fury over the fate of the remaining hostages, said Israel "will not accept" demands made by Hamas for an exchange.
The premier's Likud party quoted him as saying the terms "should be similar to the previous agreement", which saw a ratio of captives exchanged for Palestinian prisoners during a November truce.
As Gazans have suffered dire humanitarian conditions, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, is facing a major controversy after accusations that six staff members, revised down from 12, were involved in Hamas's attack.
More than a dozen countries, led by top donors the United States and Germany, suspended their funding to the aid agency after the claims surfaced.
Spain however said it would give an additional 3.5 million euros ($3.8 million) "so that UNRWA can maintain its activities in the short term", said Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres announced the creation of an independent panel to assess UNRWA and "whether the agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality", a UN statement said.
Jordan's King Abdullah II urged donors to maintain support for the agency "to allow it to provide its vital humanitarian services... particularly in light of the tragic humanitarian situation in Gaza", a royal statement said.
In a meeting with Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Amman, the two leaders urged the protection of civilians in Gaza and called to intensify efforts towards a lasting ceasefire and a "political solution" to the conflict, the statement said.
French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, on his first visit to the region since taking office, said peace will only be achieved through diplomacy, urging the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks "without delay".
Since the Gaza war broke out, violence has surged across the region including on the Israel-Lebanon border where the military reported Monday more exchanges with Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Sejourne that "time is running out" to reach a solution, warning of military action in the Lebanon border area "to return the evacuated citizens" if diplomacy fails.
Stating his case for a "complete victory" in Gaza, Netanyahu said that without it displaced Israelis "will not return, the next massacre will only be a matter of time, and Iran, Hezbollah and others will simply celebrate."