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Battles, bombing in Gaza

Israel reschedules talks with US


By AFP
Published : 28 Mar 2024 09:58 PM
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Battles and bombardment pounded the Gaza Strip on Thursday, after Washington said Israel agreed to reschedule cancelled talks with tensions worsening between the allies. 

United States criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has mounted over Gaza's civilian death toll, dire food shortages, and Israeli plans to push its ground offensive against Hamas militants into the far-southern city of Rafah, which is packed with displaced civilians.

World leaders have warned against a Rafah offensive which they fear would worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation for the Palestinian territory's 2.4 million residents. 

The United Nations reported late Wednesday that famine "is ever closer to becoming a reality in northern Gaza," and said the territory's health system is collapsing "due to ongoing hostilities and access constraints."

Bombardment and fighting have 

continued despite a binding United Nations Security Council resolution passed on Monday demanding an "immediate ceasefire" in Gaza and the release of hostages held by militants.

Netanyahu scrapped an Israeli visit to Washington to discuss the Rafah plan, in protest of the UN ceasefire resolution from which the United States abstained, allowing it to pass. 

Netanyahu's government has since backtracked and agreed "to reschedule the meeting dedicated to Rafah", according to White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.

She added that they were working to find a "convenient date".

US officials say they plan to present Israel with an alternative for Rafah, focused on striking Hamas targets while limiting the civilian toll.

- Air strike on hospital -

The war began when Hamas launched an unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel says that, after an earlier truce and hostage release deal, about 130 captives remain in Gaza, including 34 presumed dead.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 32,490 people, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

The health ministry, in a preliminary toll issued early on Thursday, said 66 people were killed overnight.

Fighting continued around three of the Strip's hospitals, raising fears for patients, medical staff and displaced people inside them.

The Al-Amal hospital in Khan Yunis, near Rafah, "has ceased to function completely", the Palestine Red Crescent said earlier this week, following the evacuation of civilians from the medical centre.

Israel's military accuses Hamas fighters of hiding in medical facilities and using civilians as shields.

Early on Thursday, the army said militants had been firing on troops "from within and outside the emergency ward at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City.

Troops began raiding Al-Shifa early last week, and on Wednesday night carried out an air strike on the emergency ward "while avoiding harm to civilians, patients, and medical teams," the army said.

The UN has reported "intensive exchanges of fire between the Israeli military and armed Palestinians". It cited the health ministry as saying the army has confined medical staff and patients to one building, not allowing them to leave.

Israel's army said troops had evacuated civilians, patients and staff "to alternative medical facilities" it set up.

Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles have also massed around the Nasser Hospital, the health ministry said, adding that shots were fired but no raid had yet been launched.

The Red Crescent warned that thousands were trapped inside.

- Almost six months of war -

Gaza has endured almost six months of war and a siege that has cut off most food, water, fuel and other supplies.

Israel denies it is blocking food trucks but aid entering the Gaza Strip by land is far below pre-war levels -- around 150 vehicles a day compared with at least 500 before the war, according to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

With limited ground access, several nations have begun aid airdrops, and a sea corridor from Cyprus delivered its first cargo of food.

But UN agencies said these are no substitute for land deliveries.

Desperate crowds have rushed towards aid packages drifting down on parachutes, and Hamas on Tuesday said 18 people drowned or died in stampedes trying to recover airdropped aid.

Israel charges that Palestinian militants sexually assaulted October 7 victims and hostages.

The New York Times published the account of the first Israeli woman to speak publicly about having been sexually abused, 40-year-old lawyer Amit Soussana.

Soussana, who was abducted from her home and released in November, said she was repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted at gunpoint by her guard inside Gaza.

Talks in Qatar towards a truce and hostage release deal, involving US and Egyptian mediators, have brought no result so far, halfway through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

- Death toll 'far too high' -

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, before meeting visiting Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, stressed that "the number of civilian casualties is far too high, and the amount of humanitarian aid is far too low" in Gaza.

US criticism has mounted but President Joe Biden has made clear he will not use his key point of leverage -- cutting US military assistance to Israel, which amounts to billions of dollars.

Netanyahu, who leads a coalition including religious and ultra-nationalist parties, faces ongoing protests at home over his failure to bring home all of the hostages.

Alongside the bloodiest-ever Gaza war, violence has surged in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where medics and the army said three people were wounded in a gun attack Thursday that targeted a school bus.

The war has raised fears of wider regional conflict, particularly along the Israeli-Lebanon border.

Lebanon's Hezbollah movement on Wednesday announced the deaths of eight of its members after a day of cross-border fire with Israel that left at least 16 people dead.

Israeli first responders said they pronounced a man dead in an Israeli border town, after Hezbollah rocket fire followed an Israeli strike on what its military called a "military compound" in southern Lebanon.