The US secretary of state’s visit to the Middle East comes as the risk of regional escalation continues to grow. He said the US wants countries to be “using their influence” to “keep a lid on things”. Meanwhile, Israel says the focus of its fight is shifting.
Israel claims to have killed 8,000 Hamas fighters in northern Gaza alone, as the US warns failing to prevent the conflict from spreading in the Middle East would lead to an “endless cycle of violence”.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), said Israeli troops had now finished dismantling Hamas’s “military framework” in the north of the Gaza Strip.
He said the military has also seized tens of thousands of weapons in that area and millions of documents, and added: “We are now focused on dismantling Hamas in the centre of and south of the Strip.”
But Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, accepted “far too many” Palestinians have been killed – “especially children” – during the conflict so far.
He was speaking on the second day of an urgent tour of the region, intended to address growing tensions and avoid the risk of the conflict spreading.
Speaking to reporters on the Greek island of Crete, after meeting both Turkish and Greek leaders, Mr Blinken said he was looking for countries to do all they could so “we don’t see escalation”.
He said it was in the interest of virtually all nations to contain the fighting and that failure to do so would lead to “an endless cycle of violence… and lives of insecurity and conflict for people in the region”.
“We want to make sure that countries who feel that way are also using their ties, using their influence, using their relationships with some of the actors that might be involved to keep a lid on things, to make sure that we’re not seeing the spread of conflict,” he said.
He also said the US is working with its allies to see what can be done to protect civilians in Gaza as Israel’s military campaign continues, adding that Israel “does not want escalation”, but that they must defend themselves.
Mr Blinken started his tour of the Middle East in Turkey on Friday and spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and foreign minister Hakan Fidan.
The top US official said after the meeting that Turkey was prepared to use its relationships with “critical players” to de-escalate conflicts arising from the situation in Gaza.
Mr Blinken will also visit Jordan before going to other Arab states, Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Israel continues to bombard Gaza in response to Hamas’s 7 October attack, during which Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 240 hostages were taken back to Gaza.
Israel believes 129 hostages remain, while Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says the Israeli response to 7 October has killed more than 22,700 Palestinians.
Much of Gaza has been laid to waste, with UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffith warning on Friday it has become a place of “death and despair”.
Pro-Palestinian protests have continued around the world, with demonstrators staging a sit-in at Westminster Bridge in London on Saturday, with several arrests made.
Tensions rising on border with Lebanon
Israel has been trading fire with Lebanon-based Hezbollah in one of the heaviest days of cross-border fighting in recent weeks.
On Saturday morning, Hezbollah claimed it fired 62 rockets at a key Israeli observation post as a “preliminary response” to the assassination of Hamas’s deputy leader.
Sirens sounded across northern Israel, with its military saying “approximately 40 launches from Lebanon toward the area of Meron in northern Israel were identified”, though there are no reports of casualties or damage.
Later on Saturday, Lebanon’s Jama’a Islamiya said it had also fired two volleys of rockets at Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel, in the third operation claimed by the hardline Sunni Muslim group since the conflict began.
After meeting the Lebanese foreign minister in Beirut, the EU’s senior diplomat Josep Borrell said he is seeing a “worrying intensification” of fire across the Israel-Lebanon border.
“Diplomatic channels have to stay open, war is not the only option – it’s the worst option,” he said, adding it is important that Lebanon not be dragged into the Gaza conflict.
Hezbollah had said the death of Saleh al Aroui – a founder of Hamas’s military wing who was killed in an Israeli drone strike in a Beirut suburb on Tuesday – would not go unanswered.
Analysts believe Israel’s drone strike could be a message to Hamas’s ally, Hezbollah, that even its prime stronghold of Dahiyeh is not beyond Israel’s reach.
Iran warns ‘enemy’ to ‘stay away’
Meanwhile, as concerns grow over key shipping routes where Iran’s allies have been attacking vessels, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards vowed on Saturday to reach “the enemy” its interests were threatened.
Guards commander Hossein Salami did not name a specific enemy in his speech, but 22 nations – including the UK – have agreed to join a US-led coalition to protect commercial routes in the Red Sea.
“We need to defend our national interests to wherever they extend,” Mr Salami said in a televised speech.
“It will be harmful for the enemy. They should stay away from this area.”
Since the conflict made Red Sea routes more dangerous, many shipping companies have switched to the longer and more costly route around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.