US President Joe Biden will make a high-stakes visit to Israel on Wednesday as it prepares to escalate an offensive against Hamas fighters that has set off a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and raised fears of a broader conflict with Iran.
Biden’s visit will mark a significant show of US support for its top Middle East ally after Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel on October 7. Death toll on the Israeli side has reached 1,400 people on Tuesday.
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Israel has responded by tightening its blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, including by restricting the entry of fuel, and bombarding the area with air raids that have killed more than 2,800 Palestinians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Al Jazeera’s Safwat Kahlout, reporting from Gaza, said at least 71 people were killed overnight on Tuesday in Israeli bombardments.
“The heaviest bombardments occurred in three areas in the south of Gaza: Khan Younis, Rafah and Deir el-Balah. Many of those killed are families who evacuated from Gaza City and the northern part of the Strip as ordered by Israel,” he said.
“Ambulances are transporting the injured to already overcrowded hospitals, and we are told that many people are still trapped in the rubble of the targeted buildings, awaiting rescue,” he added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded hours of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning, saying Biden would visit Israel.
“The president will hear from Israel what it needs to defend its people as we continue to work with Congress to meet those needs,” Blinken told reporters.
Biden would meet Netanyahu, reaffirm Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security, and receive a comprehensive brief on its war aims and strategy, Blinken said.
“[The] president will hear from Israel how it will conduct its operations in a way that minimises civilian casualties and enables humanitarian assistance to flow to civilians in Gaza in a way that does not benefit Hamas,” Blinken added.
Blinken also said he and Netanyahu had agreed to develop a plan to get humanitarian aid to Gaza civilians. He did not provide details.
After visiting Israel, Biden would travel to Jordan to meet King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, US national security spokesperson John Kirby said.
Biden’s trip is a rare and risky choice, showing the US backing for Netanyahu as Washington tries to avert a broader regional war involving Iran, Iran’s Hezbollah and Syria.
It comes as Israel is preparing a ground offensive in Gaza expected to intensify the enclave’s humanitarian crisis.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told state TV that Israel would not be allowed to act in Gaza without consequences, warning of “preemptive action” by the “resistance front” in the coming hours.
Iran refers to regional countries and forces opposed to Israel and the United States as a resistance front.
“All options are open and we cannot be indifferent to the war crimes committed against the people of Gaza,” Amirabdollahian said. “The resistance front is capable of waging a long-term war with the enemy.”
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from southern Lebanon, said Amirabdollahian’s statement on Tuesday was seen as the strongest yet.
“He said groups backed by Iran will not allow Israel to do what it wants in Gaza. Among those groups is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has been engaged with Israel along the border for more than a week now,” she said.
Khodr said, “Cross-border exchange of fire has so far been largely limited in scope, confined to the border areas and military targets.”
“Hezbollah describes what is taking place along the border as skirmishes and a warning, while Israel describes it as below the level of escalation,” she said.
“But what could happen next? This is the question on everybody’s mind. People are worrying and bracing for the possibility of this conflict – now confined to the south of the country – to spread elsewhere.”
Japan, the current president of the Group of 7 developed nations, said it was in the final stages of arranging a call with Iran, Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said, as she announced $10m in humanitarian aid for Gaza.
Diplomatic efforts have concentrated on getting aid into Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the sole route that is not controlled by Israel. Cairo said the Rafah crossing was not officially closed but was inoperable due to Israeli raids on the Gaza side.
On the military front, the US has deployed two aircraft carriers and their supporting ships to the eastern Mediterranean since the attacks on Israel. The ships were meant as a deterrent to ensure the conflict did not spread, US officials said.
The top US general overseeing American forces in the Middle East, Central Command chief Michael “Erik” Kurilla, made an unannounced trip to Israel on Tuesday, saying he hoped to ensure its military has what it needs.
As Israel masses troops on Gaza’s border, it has told more than a million people in the northern half of the enclave to flee to the southern half for their safety, even though Hamas has told them to stay put.
While tens of thousands have fled south, the United Nations says there is no way to move so many people without causing a humanitarian catastrophe.
The UN says a million Palestinians in Gaza have already been driven from their homes. Power is out, water is scarce and fuel for hospital emergency generators is running low.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies