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A delegation of Arab and Muslim leaders visited China on Monday as they stepped up efforts to build an international consensus to exert pressure to end the fighting between Israel and Hamas.
The delegation of foreign ministers and other officials arrived in Beijing as Israeli forces advanced through the south and east of Gaza City, having taken full control of al-Shifa hospital and raising international concerns about a humanitarian catastrophe in the besieged enclave.
The visit comes amid mounting frustration in Arab and Muslim countries at the refusal of the US — long the dominant diplomatic broker in the Middle East — to throw its weight behind calls for a ceasefire, and as China steps up efforts to bolster its influence in the region.
The Arab and Muslim worlds have been outraged by the scale of death and destruction in Gaza and fear that the anger sparked by Israel’s offensive risks stoking domestic and regional threats to their security.
The delegation, which consists of Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Indonesian, Palestinian and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation officials, aims to meet representatives from all the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, who received the delegation, has said the international community needs to take measures to protect civilian lives and that the solution is to find a more durable settlement to the issue of a Palestinian state.
The visit took place as aid agencies stepped up warnings about the dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza, which has been starved of fuel, water and food since Israeli forces began their air and land assault on the strip last month.
Israel’s offensive has killed almost 11,500 people in Gaza, including more than 4,700 children, according to Palestinian health officials. Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which triggered the war, killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.
On Saturday, hundreds of patients left al-Shifa, joining the 1.7mn of Gaza’s 2.3mn population displaced by the fighting.
Israel claims al-Shifa sits on top of a dense network of underground tunnels housing Hamas command centres. The country’s military on Sunday gave details of a 55m tunnel found at the hospital last week, which it said was hidden under a booby-trapped pick-up truck loaded with weapons.
It also revealed security camera videos that appeared to show Hamas fighters bringing two hostages taken from Israel into the hospital on October 7.
Hamas and doctors at the hospital have denied that it is used for military purposes and accused Israel of seeking an excuse to take over the facility.
The World Health Organization visited al-Shifa on Saturday and said the hospital was a “death zone”, adding that its team had found a mass grave containing 80 bodies.
However, despite the mounting international pressure for a ceasefire and an increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israel has refused to budge. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday night that he would reject any ceasefire that was not accompanied by a release of hostages held by Hamas. “We will continue to fight until victory,” he said.
While the US is the only foreign power that has significant leverage over Israel, China’s ties with the Middle East have grown significantly over the past two decades, mainly through trade with the region, which is the biggest supplier of oil and gas to the Asian superpower.
Beijing has historically not sought to challenge Washington’s dominant diplomatic and security role in the Arab world, but there have been signs that China is looking to step up its influence.
In March, it brokered an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, leading to the regional rivals agreeing to restore diplomatic relations that had been severed in 2016, in a diplomatic coup for Beijing.