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DOHA: US top diplomat Antony Blinken is telling Middle Eastern leaders there can be “no more business as usual” with Palestinian militant group Hamas, he said on Friday as he tours Arab states in the aftermath of Saturday’s attacks in southern Israel.

Secretary of State Blinken, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Thursday, declined to say whether he approved Israel’s move to call for all civilians in the northern half of the Gaza strip to relocate to the south as a ground invasion appears imminent.

Blinken embarked on a seven-country tour of the region in hopes of preventing the conflict between Israel and Palestinian Hamas militants from spiraling into a bigger war and to help secure the release of Israeli and American hostages held by Hamas.

Speaking to the media alongside Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani after their meeting, Blinken did not directly address a question of whether Washington was demanding that Qatar close a Hamas political office in Doha, but said in response that every country “needs to condemn” Hamas for its rampage through Israeli towns that killed 1,200 Israelis.

“I’ve also been making it clear in all of my conversations throughout this trip that there can be no more business as usual with Hamas,” Blinken said.

“Murdering babies, burning families to death, taking little children as hostages. These are unconscionable acts of brutality,” said Blinken, who was shown graphic images of dead civilians during his visit to Israel.

Sheikh Mohammed signaled that Qatar would not be closing the Hamas political office, saying it was “used as a way of communicating and delivering peace and calm to the region.”

“As long as you are keeping the communication open right now and focusing on putting an end for this conflict, and this is useful, that’s our main focus these days,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

Israel on Friday called for all civilians in the northern half of the Gaza Strip, more than 1 million people, to relocate south within 24 hours, as it amassed tanks for an expected ground assault in response to an attack by the militant group Hamas.

Hamas, which controls the strip, told residents to stay put, and vowed to fight to the last drop of blood. By Friday afternoon there was no sign of any mass exodus as Israel prepared its onslaught.

Israel through its operation wants to eliminate Hamas leadership, the group’s ability to govern and the conditions that enabled it to carry out the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, the US official said.

The United Nations said evacuating everyone was impossible with power supplies cut and food and water in the Palestinian enclave running short after a week of retaliatory air strikes and a full Israeli blockade. The International Committee for the Red Cross said humanitarian organizations would not be able to assist in an evacuation.

Blinken, who told Netanyahu that Israel should follow the rules of war in its response, did not respond to a question during the news conference in Doha of whether the move had Washington’s blessing.

The United States is discussing with Israel and relief agencies how “safe areas” can be set up for civilians in Gaza, Blinken said.

“Our focus now is on helping to create safe zones,” he said. “We think this is the best way to make sure that civilians who are caught in a crossfire of Hamas’s making can be safe and receive the assistance that they need.”

Sheikh Mohammed said Qatar was trying to keep lines of communication open to prevent suffering of people on all sides of the conflict, also calling for international law to be applied. “Human beings are human beings everywhere, whether they are Israeli or Palestinians, they have the same value,” he said.

Blinken has expanded his trip from Israel and Jordan to include all of the Gulf Arab countries and Egypt, making it his largest tour of the region since taking office in January 2021. Before departing for Doha, he met Jordanian King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, and was set to visit Bahrain on Friday before spending the night in Saudi Arabia.

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