By Humeyra Pamuk
RIYADH (Reuters) -The U.S. government on Saturday advised its citizens in Gaza to move south toward the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to be ready for its possible reopening after a Hamas attack in Israel drew Israeli military retaliation in the densely populated coastal enclave.
Washington worked with Egypt, Israel and Qatar to try to open the Rafah crossing for limited hours on Saturday afternoon to allow Palestinian-Americans to leave, a senior State Department official told reporters travelling with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
But it was unclear whether Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, would allow access to the crossing, or whether any U.S. citizens were able to exit, the official said later. It was not immediately known whether the United States would make another attempt to get Rafah opened on Sunday.
"We have informed U.S. citizens in Gaza with whom we are in contact that if they assess it to be safe, they may wish to move closer to the Rafah border crossing," a U.S. State Department spokesperson said. "There may be very little notice if the crossing opens and it may only open for a limited time."
The U.S. government estimates the number of dual-citizen Palestinian-Americans in Gaza at 500 to 600 among the strip's population of 2.3 million, and Washington hopes to get many of its nationals out of harm's way.
President Joe Biden stressed the urgent need to get humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians in calls on Saturday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the White House said.
In his first call with Abbas since Hamas' attack on Israel a week ago, Biden offered Abbas his full support for getting humanitarian aid to Palestinian people and discussed U.S. efforts to ensure supplies reach civilians in Gaza, it said.
On the third day of his most extensive trip yet to the Middle East, Blinken met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan in Riyadh as the top American diplomat works with regional allies to prevent the war between Israel and Hamas from spiralling into a bigger conflict, and help secure the release of hostages kidnapped by the Islamist group.
After a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Blinken returned for a second stop in Riyadh, where he could meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler.
With Washington especially determined to deter Iran from becoming involved, Blinken also spoke by phone with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. He asked his Chinese counterpart to help keep the conflict from spreading, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.
It was the first high-level contact between Washington and Beijing since last weekend's Hamas attack and came amid heightened tensions between the two rival powers on a range of issues.
Iran, meanwhile, warned that if Israel's bombardment was not halted immediately, "the situation could spiral out of control."
WORKING TO PROTECT CIVILIANS
Blinken started his tour in Israel where he voiced U.S. support for Washington's closest Middle East ally in its war against Hamas, whose gunmen rampaged through Israeli towns on Oct. 7, killing 1,300 people and taking dozens of hostages into Gaza. Israeli's military retaliation has killed more than 2,200 people and leveled whole neighborhoods.
A State Department official said on Saturday that 29 Americans have been confirmed dead after the Hamas attack and 15 unaccounted for.
Speaking before the meeting in Riyadh, Blinken said protecting civilians on both sides of the conflict was vital.
"And we're working together to do exactly that, in particular working on establishing safe areas in Gaza, working on establishing corridors so that humanitarian assistance can reach people who need it.
"None of us want to see suffering by civilians on any side, whether it's in Israel, whether it's in Gaza, whether it's anywhere else. And we're working together to do our best to protect them," Blinken said.
In remarks published by the U.S. State Department, the Saudi foreign minister said the priority had to be stopping additional civilian suffering.
"I have to emphasize that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is very, very difficult, and we need to work together to make sure that access for humanitarian relief and humanitarian goods is allowed," the minister said.
Following his first visit to Riyadh, Blinken travelled to the UAE to meet President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
A State Department statement issued following those talks said Blinken "expressed appreciation for the UAE’s clear condemnation of Hamas’ heinous attacks on Israeli civilians."
An earlier U.S. statement following Blinken's Riyadh meeting with Farhan said the two men discussed "their shared commitment to taking steps to help protect civilians" in the conflict, but made no mention that the Saudis had refrained so far from explicitly denouncing Hamas.
Blinken's call earlier with his Chinese counterpart was "productive," Miller said. The Chinese, he added, "do have influence with a number of countries in the region."
China's foreign ministry said in a statement that Wang called for an international peace conference over the crisis and that the two men also touched on U.S.-China relations, which Wang said were showing signs of stabilizing.
Blinken was due to fly to Egypt on Sunday before returning to Washington.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by James Mackenzie and Helen Popper and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Sharon Singleton, Mark Potter and Daniel Wallis)