The U.S. secretary of state made two unannounced visits on Sunday, the first to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the second to Baghdad.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in visits to both the West Bank and Iraq, sought to reassure Palestinian leaders on Sunday that the United States was committed to minimizing harm to civilians under fire in the Gaza Strip from Israel and to warn Iran not to jump into the conflict.
Mr. Blinken, who has been in the Middle East since Friday, early in the day held an unannounced meeting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Then, in another surprise visit, he traveled to Baghdad, reinforcing a signal to Iran that the United States is prepared to defend its allies in the region against aggression by Iran or its proxies.
“It was very important to send a very clear message to anyone who might seek to take advantage of the conflict in Gaza to threaten our personnel here or anywhere else in the region: Don’t do it,” Mr. Blinken said in a brief address at the Baghdad airport.
During his visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah earlier in the day, Mr. Blinken spoke to Mr. Abbas about U.S. efforts to get Israeli leaders to “minimize civilian harm” in Gaza, a senior State Department official said.
The Health Ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip says more than 9,700 people in the territory have been killed in the Israeli campaign.
Mr. Abbas called for “an immediate halt” to the war in Gaza and an end to Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, which he described as “no less horrific,” according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
Civilians in Gaza were continuing to pay a heavy toll on Sunday.
An explosion overnight in a densely populated residential area in the central Gaza Strip destroyed several buildings and appeared to have killed and wounded many people, photos and videos from the scene showed.
The Gazan Health Ministry said an Israeli airstrike had hit Al Maghazi — a community built up from a refugee camp established decades ago — killing at least 47 people and wounding dozens of others. It said that the toll was expected to rise, and that many bodies remained buried under the rubble.
Casualties were taken to a nearby hospital, where a photographer for The New York Times saw the injured crowding the hallways and the lifeless being prepared for burial. The Israeli military said it was looking into reports of the strike.
The Israeli military also said late Sunday that its forces had reached the shore south of Gaza City, cutting it off from the rest of the enclave as civilians again were confronted by a communications blackout. “Essentially, today there is a northern Gaza and a southern Gaza,” said a military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.
Mr. Blinken’s meetings on Sunday followed talks with Israeli and Arab leaders in Tel Aviv and Amman, Jordan, that have focused on preventing Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip from spreading.
Israel’s air campaign against the coastal enclave, followed by a ground invasion, was set off by a Hamas-led cross-border raid on Oct. 7 that killed an estimated 1,400 people in Israel, most of them civilians.
In recent days, meeting with Israeli officials, Mr. Blinken urged protections for Palestinian noncombatants and “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting, even as he spoke out about Israel’s right to defend itself. On Friday, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said there would be no cease-fire until the more than 200 Israeli hostages being held by Hamas were freed.
As tensions from the Gaza conflict echoed across the region, Mr. Blinken and Mr. Abbas also discussed efforts to restore calm in the West Bank and to stop extremist violence against Palestinians, according to a statement from the State Department. Strikes by the Israeli military and deadly attacks by armed Israeli settlers in the West Bank have surged since the Oct. 7 Hamas incursion.
Millions of Palestinians live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, and Mr. Blinken has described the extremist violence against them as “an acute concern” for the United States.
Mr. Abbas’s organization, the Palestinian Authority, is a rival of Hamas, which ousted it from Gaza in a violent coup in 2007. Mr. Abbas has long advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and Palestinian security forces under his direction have worked closely with Israel to arrest Palestinian militants.
There are indications that if Hamas is defeated, the Palestinian Authority could have a role in Gaza. After the meeting on Sunday, a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Blinken had made it clear that the United States believes the Palestinian Authority should play a central role in what comes next in Gaza.
Mr. Abbas has not, however, publicly condemned the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, largely out of fear of inflaming sentiment among Palestinians, with whom he is deeply unpopular. He has called more generally for a cease-fire and for protections for Palestinian civilians.
Mr. Blinken and Mr. Abbas last held talks three weeks ago in Amman, days after the Hamas attacks.
On his trip to Baghdad on Sunday, the secretary of state met with Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, in what amounted to a show of support.
Baghdad was the latest stop on a trip through the region aimed at containing the fallout from Israel’s war with Hamas. One of the Biden administration’s top priorities has been to deter Iran and its proxies — particularly Hezbollah, the armed group that controls areas of Lebanon along Israel’s northern border — from entering the fray.
“The attacks, the threats coming from militia that are aligned with Iran, are totally unacceptable,” Mr. Blinken said in Iraq.
According to a State Department summary of the visit, Mr. Blinken also urged Mr. al-Sudani to hold responsible those found to have carried out attacks against American personnel, whose locations have been hit by drones and rockets recently in Iraq and Syria. In his remarks, Mr. Blinken noted that Mr. al-Sudani had condemned such attacks.
Officials say the Biden administration has also sent messages to Iran and Hezbollah, through regional partners including Turkey, that the United States is prepared to intervene militarily against them if they launch attacks against Israel.
A U.S. Navy warship has shot down cruise missiles that Mr. Blinken previously said were from Yemen and appeared to be headed toward Israel. And U.S. fighter jets have bombed facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its proxies in Syria.
Although the United States has deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, Mr. Blinken said the country was not seeking a fight.
“We are not looking for conflict with Iran — we made that very clear — but we will do what’s necessary to protect our personnel, be they military or civilian,” he said.
Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Samar Abu Elouf from Gaza.