Israel bombs Gaza as Blinken says no regional escalation

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES, Jan 12 — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday the Israel-Hamas conflict was not “escalating” across the Middle East, while Israel pounded southern Gaza more than three months into the war.

As Blinken wrapped up a whistlestop tour of the region, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard arguments in a landmark case accusing Israel of breaching the United Nations Genocide Convention.

South Africa told the top UN court that Israel’s bombing campaign of the besieged Gaza Strip justified a plausible claim of “genocidal acts”, following an urgent appeal to immediately suspend military operations.

In Cairo, Blinken met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a key mediator in efforts to end the war sparked by Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel.

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“I don’t think the conflict is escalating” as regional stakeholders do not want that, the top diplomat told reporters before leaving.

Violence involving powerful Lebanese group Hezbollah and other Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen has spiked since early October, stoking fears of the conflict spiralling.

Hezbollah, a Hamas ally which has exchanged regular fire with Israel’s forces since the start of the war, said an Israeli strike killed two affiliated medics in southern Lebanon on Thursday.

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Hezbollah announced it launched rockets at northern Israel in response, with the Israeli army saying it had struck Hezbollah targets and “a number of areas in Lebanese territory”.

Tensions have also soared in the Red Sea, where attacks by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels have disrupted shipping in the vital maritime route.

The UN Security Council on Wednesday adopted a resolution that demanded the Houthis “immediately cease” the attacks, which the rebels say are in support of the Palestinians.

After US and British forces intercepted a major Houthi attack, the rebels’ leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi on Thursday threatened that any “aggression” will be met with an even “greater” response.

‘Above the law’

South Africa, which brought the case against Israel at the ICJ, argued that Israel’s military response to Hamas’s unprecedented attack was aimed at the “destruction of Palestinian life”.

Adila Hassim, a top lawyer for South Africa which has long supported the Palestinian cause, said the bombing campaign had pushed people in Hamas-ruled Gaza “to the brink of famine”.

“No armed attack on a state territory, no matter how serious... can provide justification for or defend breaches” of the Genocide Convention, said Pretoria’s Justice Minister Ronald Lamola at the court in The Hague.

In Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, on the border with Egypt and overrun with displaced people fleeing violence further north, Palestinians mourned their dead and hoped the ICJ could render justice on their behalf.

“Israel considers itself above the law,” said Hisham al-Kullah, holding a dead baby whose body was one of several to arrive at Rafah’s Al-Najjar hospital.

Another mourner, Mohammad al-Arjan, expressed hope that “the court stops the war”.

Israel, which will lay out its defence on Friday, has already dismissed the case as “atrocious” and “preposterous”.

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman accused South Africa of serving as Hamas’ “legal arm”, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued Israel was fighting “genocide” committed by the Palestinian group.

Message for hostages

The war began when Hamas launched its October 7 attack, which resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also took around 250 hostages, 132 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza, including at least 25 believed to have been killed.

Israel responded with a relentless military campaign that the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says has killed at least 23,469 people, mostly women and children.

Israel says 186 of its soldiers have died inside Gaza since launching ground operations in late October.

The United Nations estimates 1.9 million Gazans have been uprooted by the war.

In Rafah, where many families now shelter in makeshift tents against the winter cold, displaced Palestinian Abdul Aziz Saadat said the war “has not spared anyone”.

The Hamas press office on Thursday reported 62 killed in Israeli strikes overnight, including around Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Yunis.

Israel’s military said it had discovered more than 300 tunnel shafts under Khan Yunis following “underground combat”, and that “Israeli hostages had been inside” one vast tunnel.

A group of hostage relatives gathered near the Israel-Gaza border on Thursday and bellowed the captives’ names through loudspeakers, as their separation from loved ones approaches its 100th day.

Meirav Leshem Gonen, whose 23-year-old daughter Romi Gonen was captured at a rave on October 7, said it was vital the hostages knew about the efforts to get them back.

“We’re turning the world upside down” to rescue them, she told AFP.

Aid challenges

The war has triggered an acute humanitarian crisis, with an Israeli siege — following years of blockade — leading to shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine in Gaza, home to 2.4 million people.

The UN humanitarian office said that “access denials” and other constraints had blocked most aid deliveries that had been planned this month.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday said the challenges to aid delivery are “nearly insurmountable” amid bombardment, fuel shortages and interrupted communications.

The WHO says only a few Gaza hospitals are even partly functioning.

In Rafah, former Gaza health ministry staffer Zaki Shaheen converted his shop into a makeshift clinic in a bid to ease pressure on overburdened hospitals.

“We receive no less than 30 or 40 cases per day, morning to night. I’ll be sleeping, then someone comes in with an injury or a burn, so we treat them,” he told AFP. — AFP

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