US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday for another Middle East crisis tour, hoping to secure a new truce in 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 landed in Riyadh and was later expected to visit Israel, Egypt and Qatar.
Ahead of the trip he 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.
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“The situation is indescribable,” said Said Hamouda, a Palestinian who fled his home in the Gaza Strip to the southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.
Dubbed a “pressure cooker of despair” by the United Nations, Rafah now hosts more than half of Gaza’s population, displaced due to Israel’s assault.
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.
On Monday morning, sources told AFP they could hear artillery shelling in the areas of eastern Rafah and Khan Younis, where Israel believes high-ranking Hamas officials are hiding.
At least 128 people, mostly women and children, were killed in Israeli strikes overnight to Monday, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.
The Hamas government media office said Israeli bombardment had continued across the centre and south of the coastal Strip, including near hospitals.
The Israeli military said troops operating in the northern and central Gaza Strip had “killed dozens of terrorists,” and were engaging with Hamas militants in the Khan Younis area. Hamas’s armed wing said its militants attacked Israeli troops southwest of Gaza City.
Blinken is expected to discuss a proposed truce thrashed out in a Paris meeting in January of top US, Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials.
The diplomatic push has become more urgent with a surge in attacks across the region by Iran-backed groups in solidarity with Hamas, triggering counterattacks by the United States.
The proposed truce would pause fighting for an initial six weeks as Hamas frees hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, according to a Hamas source.
Hamas has said no agreement has yet been reached, while some Israeli officials have expressed opposition to any perceived concessions.
Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,478 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.
Gazans have faced dire humanitarian conditions, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on social media platform X that “there is very limited access to clean water and sanitation amid relentless bombardment”.
UNRWA itself is facing a major controversy after accusations that 12 staff members were involved in Hamas’s October 7 attack.
More than a dozen countries, led by the United States, suspended their funding to the agency after the claims surfaced.
On Sunday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that nations suspending funding to UNRWA were threatening the existence of an agency providing “vital aid to more than 1.1 million people in Gaza suffering from catastrophic hunger and the outbreak of diseases”.
Before departing for the region, Blinken said the humanitarian crisis would be one of his focuses.
“Urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and advancing stability in the Middle East are priorities we share with Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said he told Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan.
Blinken’s latest Middle East visit comes as Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told the Wall Street Journal that its key ally had not shown sufficient support.