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China Welcomes Arab, Muslim Officials for Talks on Ending Israel-Hamas War

A delegation of Arab and Muslim officials have called for a ceasefire in Gaza after arriving in Beijing Monday and being welcomed by China’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

His counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, as well as Indonesia and the secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, have begun a tour of world capitals with the aim of ending Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

The first stop in China is seen as the latest push by Beijing to step up its international role and comes months after mediating a detente that saw Saudi Arabia and Iran reestablish ties.

“China's role in the Middle East has clearly been increasing in recent years,” David Roberts, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, tells TIME.

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Last month, Beijing dispatched a peace envoy to tour the Middle East and has been a strong proponent of a ceasefire at the U.N. Security Council, where it holds the rotating presidency.

In his opening remarks before the talks began, Wang said that “China is a good friend and brother of Arab and Islamic countries.” He added: “We have always firmly safeguarded the legitimate rights and interests of Arab (and) Islamic countries and have always firmly supported the just cause of the Palestinian people.”

But while China has sought a stronger presence in the Middle East, it's ability to influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be limited. It “still retains a broad backseat in reality, at least as far as the politics and geopolitics is concerned,” Roberts says.

After Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, which left 1,200 people dead, Israel retaliated with airstrikes and a ground offensive that has left at least 13,000 Gazans dead, thousands of them children. The Strip is home to around 2.2 million people, with at least 1.4 million now displaced due to the war.

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“We are here to send a clear signal: that is we must immediately stop the fighting and the killings, we must immediately deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said. He stressed the need for international mobilization and added that the resolution issued by the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 15 calling for extended humanitarian pauses in Gaza was appreciated but insufficient.

Israel’s ambassador to China, Irit Ben-Abba, said Monday that Israel has allowed necessary humanitarian aid into Gaza but that “putting pressure on Israel in this regard is politically motivated and is not conducive to the humanitarian assistance which is needed.”

Beijing has been at odds with Washington over its approach to the Israel-Hamas war. But experts remain skeptical of any China-led breakthrough during the meetings. If the “past is any kind of prologue, it is difficult to expect something transformative from China,” Roberts says.

The meetings comes nine days after an Islamic-Arab summit took place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that gathered members of the Arab League and OIC. During the summit, leaders called on the International Criminal Court to look into the "war crimes and crimes against humanity that Israel is committing" in the Palestinian territories.

Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com.