Palestinians seek Gaza truce amid Blinken visit

February 6, 2024 9:21 am

Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Rafah [Source: Reuters]

The top U.S. diplomat met Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler on Monday in a visit that Palestinians hope will deliver a truce in Gaza before a threatened Israeli assault on Rafah, the border city where about half of the enclave’s population is sheltering.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Riyadh at the start of his first Middle East trip since Washington brokered an offer, with Israeli input, for the first extended ceasefire of the war.

Blinken’s meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lasted about two hours, and the secretary did not answer reporters’ questions as he returned to his hotel.

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The offer, delivered to Hamas last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators, awaits a reply from militants who say they want more guarantees it will bring an end to the four-month-old war in the Gaza Strip.

Beyond the truce itself, Blinken aims to win backing for U.S. plans for what would follow: rebuilding and running Gaza, and ultimately for a Palestinian state – which Israel now rejects – and for Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel.

Washington also seeks to prevent further escalation elsewhere in the Middle East, after days of U.S. air strikes against pro-Iranian armed groups across the region.

British defence minister Grant Shapps told parliament on Monday that the air strikes had depleted the ability of Yemen’s Houthis to target Red Sea shipping but the threat was “not fully diminished”.

Israel has pressed on with its offensive and threatened a new ground assault on Rafah, a small city on the southern border with Egypt where over half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now living, mostly in makeshift tents.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting troops on Monday, said Israeli forces had killed or wounded more than half of Hamas’ fighting forces and would carry on until “total victory”.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed Netanyahu’s assertions, and said he was “playing the game of making delusional victories” in the face of continued resistance.

The ceasefire proposal, as described by sources close to the talks, would see a truce of at least 40 days when militants would free civilians among remaining hostages they are holding, followed by later phases to hand over soldiers and dead bodies.

The only truce so far lasted just a week in November.