HomeNewsBlinken, Burns in Middle East as Israeli troops encircle Gaza City

Blinken, Burns in Middle East as Israeli troops encircle Gaza City

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TEL AVIV — CIA Director William J. Burns arrived in Israel on Sunday for talks with intelligence officials there and throughout the region, according to a U.S. official briefed on his travel, a move aimed at reinforcing the shuttle diplomacy of Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the Israeli military announced that its troops had encircled Gaza City.

Burns landed as Blinken on Sunday met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank, later traveling to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. Both U.S. officials are in the region to telegraph the administration’s commitment to deterring other countries or armed groups from widening the conflict, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.

“We’re working very hard to make sure that the conflict in Gaza does not escalate, does not spread to other places. Whether it’s here, whether it’s elsewhere in the region,” Blinken said Sunday during a news conference in Baghdad.

His remarks came as Israel unleashed a wave of airstrikes in northern and central Gaza on Sunday night, a fiery bombardment that coincided with a near-total communications blackout across the territory.

As Gaza death toll soars, secrecy shrouds Israel’s targeting process

The fierce fighting and soaring civilian toll underscored the challenges Blinken and Burns face, as they seek to balance U.S. commitments to Israel with the growing outrage of some partners in the region over what the United Nations says is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Their push to keep the raging conflict contained also comes despite flare-ups on the Israel-Lebanon border and in Iraq and Syria, where Iran-backed militias have staged attacks on U.S. troops and bases.

Blinken’s trip to Ramallah — cloaked in secrecy until it was over because of security concerns — also focused in part on facilitating aid to Gaza and restoring calm and stability in the West Bank, where armed Israeli settlers have attacked and displaced Palestinians. Tensions between Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Israeli settlers were high even before the Hamas attack that killed at least 1,400 people.

In the meeting, Abbas called for “an immediate halt to the devastating Israeli war on Gaza and urged the swift provision of humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, food, water, electricity, and fuel, to the war-torn enclave,” according to WAFA, the official state-run news agency of the Palestinian Authority.

But even as Blinken urged calm, the crisis escalated on several fronts. On Israel’s northern border, its forces clashed with Hezbollah militants, who killed an Israeli civilian when they fired an antitank guided missile, the Israel Defense Forces said. An Israeli drone struck a car in a Lebanese village three miles from the border, killing four civilians, Lebanon’s state news agency reported Sunday.

In Gaza, Palestinian militants fired rockets toward Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, and the main telecom provider, PalTel, said late Sunday that the territory was experiencing a “complete disruption” in internet and communications services. The outage was the third time Gaza has suffered a communications blackout over the past week.

At least 9,770 people have been killed in Gaza since the fighting began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and more than 24,800 have been injured. An additional 2,000 are reported missing, presumed to be trapped under the rubble, the United Nations said.

The death toll is expected to rise as Israeli troops and tanks go deeper into Gaza. Israel’s military said Sunday that it had encircled Gaza City and split the territory into north and south. The enclave is just six miles wide and 25 miles long.

“Today, the IDF forces led by the Golani Brigade surrounded Gaza City,” Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a news briefing.

“Today, there is north Gaza and south Gaza,” he said, adding that the Golani Brigade’s infantry troops were “holding this line.”

The Israeli advances were backed by intense air and artillery strikes, including in several refugee camps in central and northern Gaza. Late on Saturday, at least 40 people were killed in a strike on the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza, the health ministry said.

Abeer al-Athamneh, 50, was in Maghazi, where she fled early in the war after Israel warned residents in the north to leave. The strike late Saturday hit the house next to where she is staying. “Everyone was screaming in extreme pain and fear,” she said. “My body is full of bruises. I was pulled out from under the rubble. I still don’t realize how I’m still alive.”

Casualties from the strike flooded the nearby Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, where spokesman Khalil al-Dakran said there were severe equipment shortages.

“The beds are full, and there are no respirators” for the critically injured, he said, adding that the hospital cannot transfer patients because the roads are dangerous.

The increasingly desperate situation at medical facilities in Gaza signaled a wider humanitarian crisis in the territory, where food, water and fuel are all in short supply, even as aid trickles in through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Blinken on Sunday described the level of aid entering Gaza as “grossly insufficient.”

According to the United Nations, nearly 1.5 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now displaced inside the territory. They are sheltering in U.N. facilities, hospitals, churches and other public buildings.

“We’re engaged in pursuing humanitarian pauses,” Blinken told reporters in Baghdad. He tied the potential pauses — which would halt fighting for brief periods to allow aid distribution — to the 242 hostages Hamas and other groups are holding captive in Gaza.

“This can be something that advances the prospect of getting the hostages back,” Blinken said.

In Ramallah, Blinken raised the issue of Gaza’s post-conflict future with Abbas, a senior State Department official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

Israeli leaders have said that their goal is to destroy Hamas, which rules Gaza, but they have not offered a vision for who would administer the territory after the war. Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in 2007 following a disputed election and has controlled the territory since.

Blinken said during a recent Senate hearing that “an effective and revitalized” Palestinian Authority would be the best-placed entity to administer Gaza and eventually be responsible for its security. Abbas expressed willingness to consider playing a role in Gaza’s future, the State Department official said.

Abbas told Blinken that “we will fully assume our responsibilities within the framework of a comprehensive political solution that includes all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” reported WAFA, the state-run news agency.

But the Palestinian Authority has long been seen as out of touch and irrelevant by many Palestinians in both the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza. Abbas, nearing his 88th birthday, is deeply unpopular among Palestinians, many of whom see him and the authority as enablers of the Israeli occupation. Abbas is in the 18th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term as head of the authority.

But Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent Palestinian leader and adviser, said the remarks by Abbas were taken out of context, and “were not meant to imply that the [Palestinian Authority] would return to Gaza after the war.”

Abbas was speaking “in the context of an agreement and peace treaty, and of course then the West Bank and Gaza Strip are part of one Palestinian state,” she said in an interview. “There is a unanimous Palestinian decision that we will never take over Gaza on the back of an Israeli attack.”

Harris reported from Washington and Booth and Berger reported from Jerusalem. Sarah Dadouch in Beirut; Hajar Harb in London; and Rachel Pannett in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.

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