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US secretary of state Antony Blinken is due to arrive in Israel on Thursday as Washington steps up efforts to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spiralling into a regional conflict.
His visit comes hours after Israel formed a new unity government and tightened its siege of the Gaza strip, with hundreds of thousands of troops called up ahead of an expected ground offensive into the enclave. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that Israel would “crush and eliminate Hamas”.
Israeli jets have been bombarding targets in Gaza since Saturday, when the country was left reeling after Hamas militants launched the worst attack on its territory. The assault killed at least 1,200 civilians and soldiers, and wounded more than 3,000 while militants took dozens more hostage, according to Israeli officials.
Palestinian officials said on Thursday that more than 1,200 people had been killed by the Israeli strikes in Gaza and that more than 5,000 had been wounded.
Israeli forces have also engaged in light skirmishes on the country’s northern border with militants from Hizbollah, the Iran-backed group in Lebanon, after they fired mortars at Israel. Tensions are rising in the occupied West Bank, where 28 Palestinians have been killed in the past five days, according to health officials.
Blinken said before his departure from the US that the administration was warning other countries in the region not to “take advantage” of the situation in Israel.
In a show of solidarity with Israel — and a warning to Iran — the US has dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he was also sending additional fighter jets to the region.
The US is also in discussions with Israel and Egypt to create a humanitarian “safe passage” corridor for civilians in Gaza caught up in the conflict, John Kirby, US National Security Council spokesperson, said on Wednesday.
Blinken is also due to visit the West Bank, where he will meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, a senior Palestinian official said on Thursday.
Blinken’s visit follows a deal between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition party leader Benny Gantz to form a unity government for the duration of the war.
Netanyahu pledged in a statement after the deal was reached that Israel had “gone over to the offensive”.
“Every Hamas member is a dead man,” Netanyahu said.
Israel has also cut off supplies of water, electricity, fuel and goods to Gaza, which Israel and Egypt have subjected to a crippling blockade since Hamas took control in 2007.
Health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qudra said that health services there had reached a “critical stage” after Gaza’s only power plant ceased working on Wednesday.
“The health situation has become unbearable,” he said. “Urgent action must be taken to provide safe passage for medical supplies and for the wounded and sick to leave before it is too late.”
The UN estimates that nearly 300,000 Palestinians have been displaced within the 40km strip, with many rushing to UN-run schools and refugee camps to seek shelter from the Israeli bombardment. The UN’s Palestinian relief agency said on Wednesday that 11 UN staffers had been killed in air strikes.