Blinken returns to Middle East as Gaza war escalates, regional tensions soar


US' top diplomat Antony Blinken is back in Israel on a regional tour aimed at stopping the war from escalating across the Middle East, as the Israeli army continues it's bombing of Gaza and battled Hamas fighters.

US secretary of state – on his fourth Middle East tour since the war broke out – was back in Israel on Tuesday to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet, including opposition figure Benny Gantz.

Blinken pointed at "the incredibly challenging times for Israel", the fate of hostages remaining in Gaza and "the relentless efforts to bring everyone home", following talks with President Isaac Herzog.

He also voiced hope that, after the war, Israel could push on with its efforts toward regional integration, following US-brokered normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other states.

After meeting Foreign Minister Israel Katz on the latest leg of a tour that has already taken him to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Blinken said, "I think there actually are real opportunities there, but we have to get through this very challenging moment."

Washington says Blinken will press Israel on its compliance with international humanitarian law and ask for "immediate measures" to boost aid into Gaza, where relief has arrived only in sporadic convoys.

This comes as the Israeli army has claimed to have largely achieved military control over northern Gaza, and said that the war is now entering a new phase. 

Expanding ground operations

Intense bombing was reported overnight in the southern cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah – the biggest cities in the south of the besieged Palestinian enclave – which are crowded with internally displaced people.

The Israeli Defence Force says it has killed some 40 militants over the past 24 hours in what were described as "expanded ground operations including strikes" and that troops had seized a cache of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and other weapons.

Since the war broke out with the Hamas attack of 7 October, fears have grown of an escalating conflict between Israel and its other regional enemies, a loose alliance of Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah announced Tuesday that it had launched a drone attack on Israel's "northern command centre" in the city of Safed as part of its response to the killings of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri and Hezbollah field commander Wissam Tawil last week.

The Israeli army also said Monday it had killed a "central" Hamas figure in Syria – Hassan Akasha – who had led "terrorist cells which fired rockets ... toward Israeli territory".

Mother of French hostage pleads for ceasefire

Meanwhile, the mother of a French hostage whose son is still believed to be held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip has pleaded for a ceasefire. 

Marie-Pascale Radoux – who has been waiting for three months for news of her son, Orion – urged Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas to reach "a ceasefire, or at least a truce, to allow hostages to be freed".

"There has to be a ceasefire, for the hostages, the civilians, the children, the families, all the hundreds and hundreds of innocent people," the 62-year-old said in an interview with French news agency AFP. 

On December 13, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly backed a non-binding resolution calling for a ceasefire but the Israeli premier has ruled that out until Hamas is, in his words, "eliminated".

"I also ask Hamas to take care of my son because he had physical frailties," Radoux added.

"There are no words to explain what you feel ... from anger to sadness, anxiety, fear, nightmares."

Orion Hernandez Radoux was attending the Tribe of Nova music festival when Hamas entered southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on 7 October, killing some 1,2000 people.

On the day of the attack, Orion apparently tried to flee but was caught and taken by the militants into Gaza.

He is believed to still be a prisoner.
But while Orion is named on Israel's official hostage list – still numbering 132 – his mother has had no proof that he is still alive.