By Ari Rabinovitch, Simon Lewis and Nidal al-Mughrabi
JERUSALEM/AMMAN/CAIRO (Reuters) -Top U.S and European diplomats campaigned in the Middle East on Sunday to keep the Gaza war from spreading across the region, but three months into the conflict, more bloodshed underlined the challenge as Israel presses ahead with its operations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, were on separate trips to the region to try to quell spillover from the war into Lebanon, the West Bank and Red Sea shipping routes, where Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis have vowed to keep up attacks until Israel halts its campaign in the Palestinian enclave.
“We have an intense focus on preventing this conflict from spreading,” Blinken said at the onset of his trip. He was in Jordan on Sunday and will later travel to Israel, the West Bank, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt during his fourth trip to the region.
Jordan’s King Abdullah urged Blinken to use Washington’s influence over Israel to press it for an immediate ceasefire, a palace statement said, warning him of the “catastrophic repercussions” of Israel’s continued military campaign.
Despite global concern over the death and destruction in Gaza and widespread calls for a ceasefire, Israeli public opinion remains firmly behind the operation aimed at wiping out the Hamas group that rules Gaza, although support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fallen sharply.
He has not taken responsibility for the security failures that allowed the Hamas Islamic militants to attack southern Israel on Oct. 7, but has vowed to press on with the retaliatory action.
“The war must not be stopped until we achieve all the goals – the elimination of Hamas, the return of all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel,” Netanyahu said at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. “I say this to both our enemies and our friends.”
Some 1,200 people were killed and 240 were taken hostage on Oct. 7, according to Israeli officials. More than 100 hostages are still believed to be held by Hamas.
For Israelis, the deadliest day in the country’s history and the accounts of atrocities that later emerged left a sense that the country’s survival was at stake.
Israel’s offensive has so far killed 22,835 Palestinians in Gaza, after 111 dead and 250 wounded were added to the tally over the past 24 hours, Palestinian health officials said on Sunday.
An Israeli air strike on a car near Rafah in southern Gaza on Sunday killed two Palestinian journalists who were out reporting, according to health officials in Gaza and the journalists’ union there.
Meeting King Abdullah in Amman, Blinken “stressed U.S. opposition to forcible displacement of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and the critical need to protect Palestinian civilians in the West Bank from extremist settler violence,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.
The fighting has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, with many homes and civilian infrastructure left in ruins amid acute shortages of food, water and medicine.
“We hope that … Blinken looks at us with an eye of mercy, ends the war, ends the misery we are living in,” Um Mohamad Al-Arqan said, as she stood by the tent where she is living.
Blinken, who visited Turkey and Greece at the start of his trip, is due in Doha next, where he will discuss with Qatari leaders efforts to free hostages still believed to be held by Hamas after an earlier agreement mediated by Qatar broke down, a senior State Department official said.
Washington’s top diplomat will also aim to press hesitant Muslim nations in the Middle East to prepare to play a role in the reconstruction, governance and security of Gaza if and when Israel manages to eliminate Hamas, said a senior State Department official.
FOCUS ON CENTRAL, SOUTHERN GAZA
Summing up the offensive on Saturday, Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Israeli forces had dismantled Hamas’ “military framework” in northern Gaza, killing around 8,000 militants there.
“We are now focused on dismantling Hamas in the centre of and south of the (Gaza) strip,” he told an online briefing.
Palestinian health ministry figures do not differentiate between fighter and civilian casualties, but it has said that 70% of Gaza’s dead are women and people under 18.
Gun battles intensified in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis as well as in central districts of the densely populated Palestinian enclave.
Smoke rose from the sites of Israeli bombing early on Sunday east and north of Khan Younis. Israeli strikes on houses in the city killed 50 people, health officials in Nasser Hospital said on Sunday.
Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip killed gunmen loading weapons into a vehicle and dismantled a launch site that fired rockets towards Israel, the Israeli military said.
Hamas’ armed wing said its fighters destroyed a troop carrier in Al-Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.
Outside Gaza, there was more violence in the occupied West Bank. Israeli aircraft fired on Palestinian militants who had attacked troops in the area, the military said, and Palestinian health officials said seven Palestinians died in the strike.
An Israeli border police officer was killed and others wounded when their vehicle was hit by an explosive device during operations in the West Bank city of Jenin, the military and police said.
The West Bank had already seen its highest levels of unrest in decades during the 18 months before the Gaza war, and confrontations have since escalated. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers over the past weeks and security forces have made thousands of arrests.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Hatem Maher in Cairo, Ali Sawafta and James Mackenzie; Writing by Michael Georgy and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Frances Kerry)