Three months in, deaths mount and diplomats vie to stop Gaza war's spread

Three months in, deaths mount and diplomats vie to stop Gaza war's spread
Israel's brutal assault on Gaza is entering its fourth month. There is growing fear that the war could spiral into a regional conflagration amid rising tensions
5 min read
Western leaders have expressed alarm about the cross-border clashes between Hezbollah and Israel [Getty]

Top international diplomats discussed strategies for keeping the Gaza war from spreading beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories on Sunday, exactly three months after the start of the conflict, as the death toll from Israel's bombardment surpassed 22,700 people.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, were on separate trips to the region to try to quell spillover from the three-month-old war into Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Red Sea shipping lanes.

Israel and Hezbollah are trading fire across the Lebanese border, the West Bank is seething with anger, and the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen seem determined to continue attacks on Red Sea shipping until Israel stops bombarding Palestinians in Gaza.

Blinken was in Amman, Jordan, after stops in Turkey and Greece. Borrell was on a January 5-7 trip to Lebanon. Both told reporters their priority was quelling spillover from the fighting.

"We have an intense focus on preventing this conflict from spreading," Blinken told reporters before heading to Jordan from Chania, Greece, on his fourth trip to the region since October 7, when the war began.

Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari gave a roundup on Saturday, the eve of the three-month anniversary, as Israel has signalled a shift recently to scale down forces while facing international pressure over the mounting civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip.

Hagari claimed Israeli forces had completed dismantling Hamas' "military framework" in northern Gaza and killed around 8,000 militants in that area. "We are now focused on dismantling Hamas in the centre of and south of the (Gaza) strip," he said in an online briefing.

Israel often make claims or accusations without providing any evidence.

"Fighting will continue during 2024. We are operating according to a plan to achieve the war's goals, to dismantle Hamas in the north and south," Hagari said.

Hamas' large-scale ground, air and sea attack on October 7 killed around 1,140 people, and the group took more than 240 people hostage, according to Israeli officials. More than 100 hostages are still believed to be held by Hamas.

The Palestinian group said this came in response to decades of Israeli blockade of Gaza and aggression against Palestinians in occupied territories.

Israel - while saying its goal was to destroy Hamas - has killed at least 22,722 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, including thousands of children. Its unprecedented air and ground assault has devastated the tiny Gaza enclave.

The bombardment has displaced most of Gaza's 2.3 million population, with many homes and civilian infrastructure left in ruins amid acute shortages of food, water and medicine.


'They still bombed us'

On Saturday, fighting raged on in Gaza, especially in and near the southern city of Khan Younis, where the Israeli military claimed it had killed members of Hamas, which rules the densely populated coastal strip.

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported heavy shelling near the Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis. Shrapnel flew into the medical facility amid the sound of firing from drones, it said on social media.

The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said an Israeli airstrike on a residential building on Saturday night had killed at least 12 people and wounded 50, and another strike on a school in central Gaza had killed as many as four.

Standing outside a morgue in Khan Younis, 11-year-old Mahmoud Awad said Israeli airstrikes had killed his parents and siblings. "We were in al-Shati refugee camp and they dropped fliers saying Gaza is a battlefield, so we fled to Khan Younis because it was a safe place, and they still bombed us," he said.

Israel denies targeting civilians and says Hamas fighters embed themselves among civilian populations, working from tunnels beneath facilities like hospitals, without providing evidence for its claims. Hamas outright denies using civilians as human shields.

Blinken met the leaders of Turkey and Greece on Saturday at the start of a week-long trip that will also take him to Israel, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In Istanbul, Blinken held talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a fierce critic of Israel's war in Gaza. Turkey, which unlike most of its NATO allies does not class Hamas as a terrorist organsation, has offered to mediate.

Blinken said he would spend the next few days discussing with allies and partners how they can use their influence to protect civilians and maximise humanitarian aid.

Borrell expressed alarm in Beirut about exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and the risk that Lebanon could be dragged into the Gaza conflict.

"Diplomatic channels have to stay open. War is not the only option – it's the worst option," Borrell said.