Arab leaders publicly pressed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday to secure an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, as Iran continued to use threatening rhetoric.
In a rare open display of disagreement, the top US diplomat pushed back as he stood next to his Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts at a news conference, saying a ceasefire would only let Hamas regroup and launch more attacks on Israel. Earlier, the US had spoken of a humanitarian pause.
Blinken met the Saudi, Qatari, Emirati, Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers in Amman four weeks after Hamas fighters burst over the border into Israel, killing 1,400 people and taking more than 240 people hostage.
“Right now, we have to make sure that this war stops,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told the news conference.
Blinken said all were agreed on the need for peace and that the current status quo in Gaza cold not hold, but he acknowledged there were differences between Washington, which has called only for pauses to led aid into Gaza, and its allies.
“A ceasefire now would simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it did on October 7,” said Blinken, on his second trip to the region since Israel and Hamas went to war. “No nation, none of us would accept that.”
The Iranian regime, which has so far refrained from any direct involvement in the war, staged rallies on Saturday to highlight the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 that resulted in American diplomats being held hostage for 444 days. Anti-American rhetoric was rampant by officials and government media, as the regime has been trying to shift the blame for Israel’s retaliatory attack on Gaza to the United States.
Reports emerged of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh having met Iran’s ruler Ali Khamenei in recent days, traveling from Qatar to Tehran. No details were available about the talks.
Israel continued its air and ground operations in Gaza accompanied by a barrage of accusations that civilian targets were hit. However, it is extremely difficult to say what locations or vehicles are being used by Hamas, which often uses civilian buildings for military purposes.
Israel last month ordered all civilians to leave the northern part of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City where it says Hamas militants are hiding in tunnels, and head to the south of the enclave.
The military said it would enable Palestinians to travel on a main Gaza Strip highway, the Salah a-Din road, during a three-hour window on Saturday afternoon. “If you care about yourself and your loved ones, heed our instruction to head south,” it said in a social media post in Arabic.
Several residents told Reuters they were too afraid to use the road due to Israeli forces and many posted warnings on social media that Israeli tanks were stationed on it. At the same time they were social media reports accusing Hamas of firing on the road during the time window for civilians to leave.
US Special Envoy David Satterfield said in Amman that between 800,000 to a million people had moved to the south of the Gaza Strip, while 350,000-400,000 remained in northern Gaza City and its environs.
Israel has imposed a full blockade on Gaza and allowed very little aid in from Egypt, saying it fears it would be stolen by Hamas. Satterfield said there were no recorded instances of Hamas seizing aid.
In what appeared to presage a widening of Israel’s ground offensive, the military issued footage showing armored bulldozers churning up northern Gaza areas in what it described as “creating access routes for forces”.
A combined tank and combat engineering unit carried out a “pinpoint raid” in the southern Gaza Strip “to map out buildings and neutralize explosives”, it said.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah said it carried out simultaneous attacks on Israeli positions at the Lebanese border on Saturday, as residents of south Lebanon reported some of the fiercest Israeli strikes yet during weeks of cross-border clashes.
The Israeli army said its warplanes had struck Hezbollah targets in response to an earlier attack from Lebanese territory and was accompanying the air strikes with artillery and tank shelling.
The Hezbollah movement in Lebanon is backed by Iran, as is Hamas. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday warned that conflict could spread if Israel continued bombing Gaza.
Pro-Palestinian protests took place on Saturday in European capitals including London, Berlin and Paris to call for an immediate ceasefire.
With reporting by Reuters