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China's Xi calls for Middle East peace conference

China is this week hosting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and several other Arab leaders for a forum at which discussions on the war in Gaza were expected
— Beijing (AFP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Thursday for a peace conference to end the war between Israel and Hamas, as he addressed Arab leaders at a forum aimed at bolstering ties with the region.

Xi is this week hosting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and several other Arab leaders.

Itself an oil producer, China has also long imported crude from the Middle East, where it has sought to expand its influence in recent years.

It has positioned itself as a more neutral actor on the Israel-Palestinian conflict than its rival the United States, advocating for a two-state solution while also maintaining good ties with Israel.

China has pointed to the Middle East as a key node in its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, a central pillar of Xi's bid to expand his country's clout overseas.

Addressing delegates, Xi on Thursday expressed support for a "broad-based" peace conference to resolve the Israel-Hamas conflict.

"The Middle East is a land bestowed with broad prospects for development, but the war is still raging on it," Xi said.

"War should not continue indefinitely. Justice should not be absent forever," he added.

Speaking after Xi, Egypt's Sisi urged the international community to ensure Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are not displaced from their war-ravaged territory.

Egypt shares a border with Gaza and signed a historic peace deal with Israel in 1978.

"I... call on the international community to immediately provide for long term humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip and to end the Israeli siege," Sisi said.

He also called for the international community to "stop any attempt at forcing Palestinians to forcibly flee their land".

Children cheer as they rehearse for a welcome ceremony for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

Sisi's comments come after the Israeli army said Wednesday it had gained "operational control" over the strategic Philadelphi corridor along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

The corridor had served as a buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt, and Israeli troops patrolled it until 2005 when they were withdrawn as part of a broader disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

"Sisi is interested in pocketing China's political support at a time of high tensions with Israel," Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House think tank, told AFP.

"Sisi has a deep sense that Egypt is increasingly backed into a corner and wants every support from major countries he can get," he added.

- 'Golden opportunity' -

China has advocated for decades for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

On Thursday, Xi hailed his "deep sense of affinity" with the Arab world.

"Friendship between China and Chinese people and Arab countries and peoples originates from friendly exchanges along the ancient Silk Road," he said.

State media has reported that 21 Arab nations have signed cooperation agreements with Beijing as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

"China will further enhance strategic cooperation with the Arab side on oil and gas, and integrate supply security with market security," Xi said, according to a readout of his speech by the foreign ministry.

"China is ready to work with the Arab side on new energy technology R&D and equipment production," he added.

Following the forum, Xi met at Beijing's monumental Great Hall of the People with the UAE's Sheikh Mohamed, who described China as "my second country".

"The United Arab Emirates attaches great importance and priority to its partnership with China, and we are committed to strengthening it and expanding its horizons in the interest of both friendly countries and peoples for the next 100 years," he told Xi.

China has worked to position itself as a mediator in the region, last year brokering a detente between Saudi Arabia and its long-time foe Iran.

Last month, it hosted rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah last month for "in-depth and candid talks on promoting intra-Palestinian reconciliation".

Analysts say China is seeking to leverage the war in Gaza to boost its standing in the region, framing its efforts to end that conflict against perceived US inaction.

"Beijing sees the ongoing conflict as a golden opportunity to criticise the West's double standards on the international scene and call for an alternative global order," Camille Lons, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

"When speaking about the war in Gaza, it speaks... to a wider audience, and frames the conflict around the opposition between the West and the Global South," she added.