The US urged restraint on Israel as Washington and Saudi Arabia stepped up efforts to prevent the war with Hamas from spiralling into a regional conflict.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken called on Israel to take steps to avoid civilian casualties at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose newly formed unity government is preparing a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Blinken also reiterated a warning to other regional powers not to “take advantage” of the situation in Israel, amid concerns that a broader conflict could draw in Iranian-backed militant groups in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.
“Israel has the right, indeed the obligation, to defend itself and to ensure that this never happens again,” Blinken said, referring to the deadly incursion Hamas mounted from Gaza at the weekend, which killed more than 1,000 people.
But he added: “How Israel does this matters. We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard . . . That’s why it’s so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”
Netanyahu said: “Hamas is Isis and, just as Isis was crushed, so too will Hamas be crushed.”
The two men were speaking as Syrian state television reported that Israel struck its two main airports, in Damascus, the capital, and the northern city of Aleppo — attacks that were not immediately confirmed by the Israeli military.
Syrian air defences were launched in response to the attack, local media reported. The airports have been targeted several times this year.
Israel rarely acknowledges or discusses attacks it conducts in Syria. But it has carried out hundreds of strikes inside government-controlled regions in recent years — often targeting installations it says are tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and allied militia groups.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also discussed the hostilities by phone with Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi on Wednesday, in what Riyadh depicted as an effort to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading.
It was the first such contact between the Middle East’s Sunni and Shia heavyweights for years.
Prince Mohammed, whose call with Raisi came after recent efforts to normalise relations with Israel, said the kingdom “was reaching out to all international and regional sides to end the current escalation”, according to the Saudi state news agency.
Raisi said Iran and Saudi Arabia, “as two key players [in the region], should defend the Muslim and oppressed nation of Palestine at this critical time”, according to a readout by Tehran.
Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was heading to the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Thursday to discuss issues including Gaza and is due to make a subsequent stop in Lebanon.
Fears that the war with Hamas could spread into a second front with Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant movement, on Israel’s northern border are a principal concern in Washington and elsewhere.
Before departing Washington, Blinken emphasised that the US had sent “the world’s largest aircraft carrier group to the region to make very clear our intent to deter anyone contemplating any further aggression against Israel”.
There have already been artillery exchanges across the Israel-Lebanon frontier, although both sides appear so far to be attempting to contain the hostilities.
Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for Israel’s military, said on Thursday morning that the country had deployed an additional division on the Lebanon border. He added that, although people were “very jumpy”, the situation in the north was “contained”.
Hecht said Israeli forces were still repelling sporadic attempts by Hamas militants to enter Israel from the sea, and were preparing for the next stage of the war. However, he said “no decision” had been taken on how it would be fought.
Israeli jets have been bombarding targets in Gaza since Saturday when the country was left reeling after Hamas militants launched the worst-ever 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 1,354 people had been killed by the Israeli strikes in Gaza and that 5,763 had been wounded.
Tensions are also rising in the occupied West Bank, where authorities say 28 Palestinians have been killed in the past five days, and which Blinken is due to visit on Thursday, according to a senior Palestinian official.
Israel has 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 health services in Gaza had reached a “critical stage” after the enclave’s only power plant ceased working on Wednesday, with medicine supplies set to run out “imminently”.
“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 be transferred before it is too late.”
But Israel Katz, Israel’s energy minister, posted on the social media platform X that, until the hostages had been returned, “no electrical switch will be turned on, no water hydrant will be opened and no fuel truck will enter” Gaza.
The UN said 340,000 Palestinians had 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 12 UN staffers had been killed in air strikes.
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr