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Jun Zhai, China's special envoy for the Middle East, addresses via videoconference the Manama Dialogue security conference, in Bahrain, on Dec. 6, 2020.MAZEN MAHDI/AFP/Getty Images

China has reiterated its call for a ceasefire in the rapidly escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, after the Palestinian militant group launched a series of dramatic and deadly raids into Israel over the weekend, sparking an intense counterattack against Gaza.

Beijing has in recent months positioned itself as a potential peacemaker in the Middle East – a rare global power that has good relations with all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. But China has struggled to walk the tightrope of responding to the latest crisis without damaging those ties.

In a statement Sunday, Beijing called for calm and restraint from all “relevant parties,” sparking anger from Israel, whose ambassador to China said it was not appropriate for a “friend” to equivocate “when people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets.” During a meeting between U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, Mr. Schumer also urged “the Chinese people to stand with the Israeli people and condemn the cowardly and vicious attacks” by Hamas.

A statement late Tuesday from China’s special envoy to the Middle East appeared designed to mollify Israel. Zhai Jun said China “opposes and condemns acts that harm civilians” and called for an immediate ceasefire.

Mr. Zhai’s comments were echoed by Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Wednesday, who said the solution to the crisis “lies in peace talks, the implementation of the two-state solution and the early, comprehensive and proper settlement of the Palestinian issue through political means so that the legitimate concerns of all parties can be guaranteed.”

During the Mao Zedong era, Beijing supported Palestinian liberation movements, but in recent years it has drawn closer to Israel, increasing trade and co-operating on anti-terrorism measures. After China helped negotiate a historic détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year, some had hoped an Israeli-Palestinian accord would be next, particularly after Mr. Xi met with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, in Beijing in June to discuss such a deal.

But Ryan Hass, a senior Brookings Institution analyst and former adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama on China policy, said Beijing’s “cautious response to Hamas’s attack” exposed the limits of China’s influence in the region.

“Beijing historically has been wary of being drawn into taking sides,” he wrote this week. “I don’t expect that will change now.”

Chinese state media coverage of the violence has focused largely on the ongoing Israeli response in Gaza, where hundreds of civilians have been killed by air strikes, rather than the attacks by Hamas that preceded it. Nationalistic outlets have also sought to cast blame for the conflict at the feet of the West, with a Global Times editorial accusing the U.S. of neglecting Palestinians, adding, “Western elites often ignore the actual humanitarian disasters while enthusiastically discussing abstract human rights, which is very hypocritical.”

On the Chinese internet, where both antisemitism and Islamophobia are widespread, many initially praised Hamas for its dramatic attack, which took the Israeli military completely by surprise, and were dismissive of the civilian toll. Ziwu Xiashi, a nationalist commentator with more than a million followers, compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews in the Second World War and said Israel had “dug its own grave.” A hashtag claiming Jews controlled “70 per cent” of the wealth in the U.S. also briefly trended.

As the scale of the civilian death toll from the Hamas raids became clear, more commenters did express sympathy with Israel, particularly when it emerged that several Chinese citizens had been killed in the violence and others potentially taken hostage.

Mei Xinyu, a popular commentator who writes critically about the U.S., excoriated his followers for lacking “basic human ethics” in their response to the fighting. He was particularly outraged by comments about Noa Argamani, a Chinese-Israeli woman who was seen in a video being driven away by a Hamas fighter as she pleaded for her life. Some had mocked Ms. Argamani’s distress or doubted her heritage.

“Do you think that trampling on victims of Chinese descent will make the Palestinians and Hamas thank you and be close to you?” Mr. Mei wrote. “This will only make outsiders, including them, look down on you.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Argamani’s parents gave an interview to Phoenix Television, a Chinese state-backed outlet, in which they expressed hope that “the outside world can effectively help them rescue their daughter.”

With files from Reuters and Alexandra Li.

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