Blinken to meet Arab leaders as heavy fighting rages in Gaza

US secretary of state Antony Blinken is set to meet Arab envoys in Jordan on Saturday as fierce battles rage between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters on the outskirts of Gaza City.

The fighting picked up pace after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a US plea on Friday for a “humanitarian pause” to allow more aid into the blockaded enclave.

After meeting Blinken, who asked Israel to do more to “protect Palestinian civilians”, Netanyahu tied any temporary ceasefire to the unconditional release of the 242 hostages still held by Hamas.

Blinken is meeting Arab diplomats, including from Egypt and Jordan, who have been infuriated by the ferocity of Israel’s bombardment and fear the violence will trigger a broader conflict.

Palestinians reported a night of intense aerial and artillery bombardment, including in south Gaza, where the IDF confirmed it had been operating.

Amman withdrew its ambassador to Israel this week and condemned the “killing of innocent civilians . . . and a severe and unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe”.

Cairo, meanwhile, is worried that Israel will seek to use its war with Hamas to displace Palestinians from Gaza into the Sinai peninsula.

At Saturday’s meeting, Blinken will be urged to refocus US diplomacy towards pushing Israel to agree to a ceasefire and rein in violence from extremist settlers in the occupied West Bank, an Arab diplomat said.

The diplomat added that Arab leaders would aim to impress upon Blinken the urgent need for a “political horizon for the day after” the war ends.

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“This is more or less a brainstorming meeting, involving the main parties in the region with the US to have a way to move forward,” the diplomat said. “The best solution is to have a political solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], yesterday, not today.”

International efforts to get more aid into the enclave while simultaneously creating conditions for the release of Hamas’s hostages, many of them women, children and the elderly, gathered pace but there was no sign of a breakthrough in sight.

A senior US administration official said intense discussions to secure the release of 242 hostages in Gaza were continuing, including through indirect engagement with Hamas.

The official added that the October 20 release of two American hostages — a mother and her teenage daughter — was a test run to see if the channel for hostage discussions, which includes Qatar and Egypt, was feasible and whether the parties could secure a pause in the fighting to facilitate their release.

“The discussions have been intense, have been detailed, we have proven that it is possible and . . . we are hopeful . . . [but] there is no guarantee,” the official said.

Hamas has demanded a ceasefire, more aid for Palestinian civilians and fuel for the strip, in exchange for the release of civilians, while it intends to hold on to captured Israeli soldiers to trade for more than 6,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

The fighting overnight included “close-quarter combat” between Israeli troops and Hamas militants, and at least one Israeli air strike on a convoy of ambulances headed to al-Shifa hospital, where thousands of civilians have taken refuge, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

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The Israeli military said the convoy was “being used by a Hamas operative”, and claimed that several Hamas militants were killed. Video from the scene showed dead and injured civilians, including women and children, as well as a woman lying on a stretcher in an ambulance.

It was followed by a second explosion that affected the remaining four ambulances, nearer to al-Shifa hospital, Palestinian health officials said. Video from the scene showed at least a dozen casualties. The entrance to the hospital is usually crowded by civilians seeking refuge and television crews.

“The images of bodies strewn on the street outside the hospital are harrowing,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres, repeating calls for an immediate ceasefire. “An entire population is traumatised, nowhere is safe.”

Blinken is in Amman to meet Arab diplomats from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority, a rival of Hamas.

Aid convoys from Egypt into Gaza remained at a fraction of prewar levels, with Israeli security examining the contents of each truck before it is allowed into the enclave.

Since hostilities began on October 7, 410 trucks have entered the strip, 36 of them on Friday, according to an Israeli ministry of defence document seen by the Financial Times. More than 400 trucks a day entered the enclave before the fighting began.

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Israel blamed the delays on “logistical difficulties among the organisations responsible for receiving the humanitarian aid”, and maintained that there was enough food and water in the “short term”.

International organisations, including the UN, have documented a widespread humanitarian crisis, and Tom White, the Gaza director for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on Friday that the average Gazan was now living on two pieces of bread a day, and begging for clean water.

Israel is considering a proposal to set up a maritime humanitarian corridor, with aid being sent to Cyprus that would be examined by Israeli officials. The aid would then be delivered to a small port in Gaza, two people familiar with the discussions said. The port has been damaged by Israeli strikes.

That would take significant time to set up, a senior UN official said, and includes demands from Israel that international monitors within Gaza “keep eyes” on each truck from entry to distribution.

Around 9,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since October 7, when Israel began an aerial bombardment, followed by a ground invasion a week ago, local health officials said. A US official said Israel may reduce the intensity of its aerial bombardment as it shifts to a “tactical focus on the ground campaign”.

At least 1,400 Israelis were killed, including 314 soldiers and civilians in Hamas’s cross-border raid, Israeli authorities said. Twenty-seven soldiers have been killed by Hamas militants inside Gaza.