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Blinken seeks 'enduring end' to Gaza war in latest Mideast tour

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his fifth Middle East trip since the Israel-Hamas war broke out
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off Monday a Middle East tour seeking a new truce and "an enduring end" to the Israel-Hamas war, as Gaza saw no let-up in fighting.

On his fifth trip to the region since Hamas's October 7 attack that triggered the war, Blinken met Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler in Riyadh and was later expected to visit Israel and mediators Egypt and Qatar.

Blinken and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed "regional coordination to achieve an enduring end to the crisis in Gaza", said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

They also spoke of "the urgent need to reduce regional tensions", Miller said, referring to a surge in attacks across the region by Iran-backed Hamas allies that triggered counterattacks by the United States and its partners.

Gazans look for survivors in the rubble of the Abu Saleh family home in Rafah after it was hit during Israeli bombardment

Ahead of the trip, Blinken 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 territory.

Palestinian man Said Hamouda, who fled his home to the southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt, said "the situation is indescribable."

Rafah now hosts more than half of the Gaza Strip's population, displaced due to the fighting.

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.

Israeli troops along the border with the Gaza Strip

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.

Witnesses reported shelling around Khan Yunis, where Israel believes high-ranking Hamas officials are hiding.

The militant group's Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, was "moving from hideout to hideout", said Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, without elaborating on his presumed current location.

- Hostage negotiations -

"Sinwar does not lead the campaign, does not command the forces," Gallant told a televised briefing, claiming the top Hamas leader was strictly concerned with "his personal survival".

A Palestinian woman searches through the rubble after bombardment in Gaza City

As bombardment and battles keep raging across Gaza, Blinken is expected to discuss during his visit a truce framework not yet signed off on by either Hamas or Israel.

The war was sparked by Hamas's unprecedented October 7 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.

Smoke rising over Khan Yunis, southern Gaza's main city, nearly four months into the war

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.

- 'Tragic' conditions -

As Gazans have suffered dire humanitarian conditions, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, is facing a major controversy after accusations that 12 staff members were involved in Hamas's attack.

Israel and the Palestinian territories

More than a dozen countries, led by top donor the United States, 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".

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a phone call told Netanyahu -- who had come under fire for rejecting Palestinian sovereignty -- that "only a negotiated two-state solution would open up the prospect of a sustainable solution to the Middle East conflict".

In Riyadh, Blinken also discussed "building a more integrated and prosperous region", spokesman Miller said, alluding to negotiations cut off by the Gaza war for a landmark Saudi normalisation with Israel.