Blinken to hold talks in Israel in tour aimed at securing ceasefire

US secretary of state to discuss need to protect civilian population and delivery of humanitarian assistance

US secretary of state Antony Blinken will hold talks in Israel on Friday after he unexpectedly added the country to the itinerary of a Middle East tour aimed at trying to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza war.

Mr Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday as residents of Gaza City described the most intense fighting for months around the Al-Shifa hospital.

US state department spokesman Matthew Miller said that, as well as continuing efforts to reach a ceasefire and hostage release deal, Mr Blinken would discuss with Israel “the need to ensure the defeat of Hamas, including in Rafah, in a way that protects the civilian population, does not hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance and advances Israel’s overall security”.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said preparations for starting a ground offensive in Rafah, where more than a million Gaza residents who fled from areas of fighting have found refuge, “will take some time”. An Israeli delegation will travel to Washington next week to hear US proposals for an alternative to a full-scale ground offensive.


Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha warned Israel that a military operation would have far-reaching repercussions and might adversely affect truce negotiations in Qatar, possibly scuttling the chance of an agreement.

World Food Programme chief Cindy McCain said there was a very small window left to prevent an outright famine in Gaza. “We need immediate, safe and full access, especially to the north,” she said. “Once a famine has been declared, it’s too late. Thousands more will be dead.”

Israel’s military operation in and around Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital continued for a third day on Wednesday. The Israeli military said more than 90 militants had been killed and more than 350 suspected militants detained, including Mahmoud Kawasame, who was involved in the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank in 2014, an event that sparked a previous war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Thousands of residents moved south away from Al-Shifa hospital to avoid the clashes.

Israel claims the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups were using the hospital as a base for re-establishing a presence in northern Gaza.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, almost 32,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 253 hostages seized in the surprise Hamas attack on October 7th, which triggered the war. Israel believes 134 hostages remain in Hamas captivity, though it is not known how many remain alive.

The ongoing talks in Qatar aimed at reaching a new ceasefire and hostage release appear to be deadlocked. Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said the Israeli response to a Hamas truce proposal was negative and did not meet Hamas’s demands.

Israeli officials said the proximity talks could take weeks, despite heavy US pressure on all the sides to clinch a deal. Israel says Hamas is now focusing on its demand that all the displaced residents from northern Gaza be allowed to return to their homes – a condition that Israel rejects.

Israel has reacted angrily to Canada’s decision to suspend arms exports to Israel, amid concerns that other western nations will follow suit. “History will judge Canada’s current action harshly,” said Israeli foreign minister Yisrael Katz. “Israel will continue to fight until Hamas is destroyed and all hostages are returned home.”

In the West Bank city of Jenin, a militant stronghold, four militants were killed in an Israeli air strike on Wednesday. Israel described two of them as senior members of Islamic Jihad.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem