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Blinken tells Israel civilian toll in Gaza 'far too high'

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas gunmen launched their unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel
— Tel Aviv (AFP)

Top US diplomat Antony Blinken told Israel Tuesday the toll on Gazan civilians caused by its war against Hamas was "far too high", urging his ally to alleviate their suffering.

More than three months into the deadliest ever Gaza war, Blinken met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on his fourth round of Middle East crisis diplomacy since the conflict broke out.

Blinken reaffirmed US "support for Israel's right to prevent" a repetition of the unprecedented Hamas attacks of October 7 that sparked the war, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

But Blinken also "stressed the importance of avoiding further civilian harm and protecting civilian infrastructure in Gaza", said Miller of the Hamas-run territory where a humanitarian crisis is deepening and local health officials have reported more than 23,000 deaths.

Blinken later told a news conference that the "daily toll on civilians in Gaza, particularly children, is far too high", and said more food, water and medicine were needed.

Israel has agreed to a UN assessment mission in northern Gaza that would "determine what needs to be done to allow displaced Palestinians to return safely", he said.

Miller said that for the longer term, Blinken in his discussions with Netanyahu "reiterated the need to ensure lasting, sustainable peace for Israel and the region, including by the realisation of a Palestinian state".

Israel "must stop taking steps that undercut Palestinians' ability to govern themselves effectively", Blinken said during the news conference.

An AFP correspondent reported intense strikes overnight in Khan Yunis and Rafah, the biggest cities in the south of Gaza which are crowded with internally displaced people.

Israel's army said its forces had killed 40 militants over the past 24 hours in "expanded ground operations including air strikes" in Khan Yunis, and that troops had seized AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and other weapons.

"No place is safe, we don't know what to do, may God help us," Rafah resident Mohammad Hejazy told AFP on Monday.

- Ceasefire calls -

The Gaza war began after Hamas gunmen launched their unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Israeli shelling near a southern Gaza hospital has killed 41 people over the past two days, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent

Militants of Hamas, considered a "terrorist" group by the United States and European Union, also took around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 of them remain captive, including at least 25 believed to have been killed.

Israel has responded with relentless bombardment and a ground invasion of Gaza that have killed at least 23,210 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The Israeli army says its death toll inside Gaza had risen to 185 after nine soldiers were killed on Monday.

"There has to be a ceasefire, for the hostages, the civilians... all the hundreds and hundreds of innocent people," Marie-Pascale Radoux, whose Franco-Mexican son Orion is believed held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, told AFP in France.

"There are no words to explain what you feel... from anger to sadness, anxiety, fear, nightmares."

- 'Heavy price' -

Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh speaking in Doha in a file picture from December 20, 2023

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, speaking in Qatar on Tuesday, said the October 7 attack "came after an attempt to marginalise the Palestinian cause".

"Despite the heavy price, the massacres and the war of genocide, it (Israel) failed to achieve any of its goals."

In further comments, released later by Hamas in Gaza, Haniyeh called on Muslim states "to support the resistance with weapons, because this is... not the battle of the Palestinian people alone".

The war has displaced most of Gaza's 2.4 million people, and the United Nations says many are at risk of famine and disease.

The World Health Organization said its ability to provide aid and support Gazan hospitals was "shrinking".

With only minimal aid entering Gaza, Israeli human rights group B'Tselem charged that "everyone in Gaza is going hungry" as the "direct results of Israel's declared policy".

Since the war started, fears have grown of an escalating conflict between Israel and its other regional enemies, a loose alliance of Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told Blinken on Tuesday that intensifying pressure on Iran was "critical" and may prevent a regional escalation, an Israeli government statement said.

Israel has traded cross-border fire with Lebanon's Hezbollah for three months, and more recently killed senior operatives of the Shiite Muslim militant group as well as of Hamas on Lebanese soil.

Hezbollah on Tuesday announced four of its fighters had been killed.

This picture, taken during a media tour organised by the Israeli military on January 8, 2024, shows troops operating in the central Gaza Strip, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas

The Israeli army also said Monday it had killed a "central" Hamas figure in Syria, Hassan Akasha, who had led "terrorist cells which fired rockets... toward Israeli territory".

- War entering 'new phase' -

As the ground offensive continues, Israel has said it has largely achieved military control over northern Gaza and that the war is entering a new phase.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari, speaking to The New York Times, said this would involve fewer soldiers and air strikes and that a troop reduction had already begun this month.

Displaced Palestinians shelter under palstic sheeting in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 2, 2024

Violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli police confirmed three people were killed Monday during a raid on the city of Tulkarem to arrest a "wanted terrorist".

Israeli army raids and settler attacks in the West Bank have killed at least 333 people since October 7, according to the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of a "brutal crime" after footage shared on social media appeared to show a military vehicle running over a dead militant in Tulkarem.

Israel's military has not yet responded to AFP requests for comment on the footage.

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