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Tel Aviv: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the Middle East on Thursday with public divisions between the United States and Israel at perhaps their worst level since Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza began in October.

Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes killed at least 13 people overnight into Thursday in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’ cease-fire terms and said he would expand the offensive into the southern Gaza town.

Wrapping up a four-nation Mideast trip — his fifth to the region since the conflict erupted — Blinken was returning to Washington after getting a virtual slap in the face from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the war would continue until Israel is completely victorious and appeared to reject outright a response from Hamas to a proposed cease-fire plan.

Relations between Israel and its main international ally, the United States, have been tense for months, but Netanyahu’s public dismissal of a plan the U.S. says has merit, at least as a starting point for further negotiation, highlighted the divide.

Yet Blinken and other U.S. officials said they remained optimistic that progress could be made on their main goals of improving humanitarian conditions for Palestinians civilians, securing the release of hostages held by Hamas, preparing for a post-conflict Gaza and preventing the war from spreading.

“Clearly there are things that Hamas sent back that are absolute non-starters,” Blinken said of the response the militant group delivered Tuesday to a cease-fire and hostage release proposal that was endorsed last month by Egypt, Qatar, the U.S. and Israel itself.

“But, at the same time, we see space to continue to pursue an agreement,” Blinken said late Wednesday. “And these things are always negotiations. It’s not flipping a light switch. It’s not ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ There’s invariably back and forth.”

Shortly before Blinken spoke, though, Netanyahu took direct aim at the Hamas response, calling it “delusional” and vowing that Israel would fight on to achieve “absolute victory” over the militant group, no matter what.

Image courtesy of KSBY

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