Global efforts to halt Rafah offensive intensify as Gaza death toll increases - as it happened

Ahram Online , Wednesday 20 Mar 2024

Ahram Online provided coverage of the Israeli war on Gaza on its 166th day.

Men carry the bodies of victims who were killed in an Israeli air strike on a building at Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 20, 2024. AFP


23:00 Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday it will donate $40 million to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has faced massive funding cuts and calls for its abolition spearheaded by Israel.

The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSrelief) said the funds would support UNRWA's "humanitarian relief efforts in the Gaza Strip", where the war has raged for more than five months.

"The funding will provide food for more than 250,000 people and tents for 20,000 families," KSrelief said in a statement.

22:00 A senior Lebanon-based Hamas official said Wednesday that Israel's response to the latest proposal from the Palestinian group for a six-week truce in Gaza was "generally negative", as talks continued in Qatar.

Osama Hamdan told a news conference in Beirut that mediators had conveyed the Israeli position a day earlier, but it was "generally negative and does not respond to the aspirations of our people".

He said the Israeli response "constitutes a step backwards" compared to previously communicated positions and "is likely to hamper negotiations, and could lead to an impasse".

21:00 Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry and his French counterpart Stéphane Séjourné discussed on Wednesday the latest developments in the Gaza Strip.

Shoukry expressed Egypt's gratitude to France for its endeavours, particularly its efforts as a permanent member of the UNSC, in pushing for a resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, given the worsening humanitarian situation in the strip.

20:00 More than a third of the US Senate's Democrats called on President Joe Biden's administration Wednesday to take "bold" action toward establishing a Palestinian state, in the latest pushback against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The letter to Biden comes days after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country's highest-ranking Jewish elected leader and longtime advocate for Israel, sent shock waves with a speech criticizing Netanyahu's conduct of the Gaza war and urging new Israeli elections.

Nineteen Democratic senators led by Tom Carper, a longtime ally of Biden from his home state of Delaware, in the letter, said that the Middle East crisis had "reached an inflection point" that required US leadership beyond past "facilitation" of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

"As such, we request the Biden administration promptly establish a bold, public framework outlining the steps necessary" to establish a Palestinian state over both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the senators wrote.

The senators said an independent Palestinian state would be "non-militarized" -- a terminology embraced by former president Bill Clinton in his peace push two decades ago -- and would both recognize Israel and renounce Hamas.

The senators called for a "regional peace initiative" that would integrate Israel -- an allusion to ongoing attempts to persuade Saudi Arabia to offer normalization with Israel, the focus of the latest visit to the kingdom by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Biden and Blinken have repeatedly voiced support for a two-state solution but did little to advance it before the war, aware that Netanyahu and his hard-right government are firmly against the idea.

18:00 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Saudi Arabia Wednesday as part of a regional tour to discuss efforts to secure a Gaza truce that includes a stop in Israel.

The US top diplomat touched down in Jeddah, where he was expected to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The kingdom marks the first stop on Blinken's sixth Middle East tour since the Israeli war on Gaza started on 7 October.

Blinken is due to travel on Thursday to Egypt, which borders Gaza and has been involved in previous mediation efforts.

The following day he will head to Israel in a previously unscheduled visit that comes amid strained ties between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller announced the Israel visit as Blinken landed in Saudi Arabia.

The top diplomat will discuss with Israeli officials "the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of all captives" and efforts to boost aid deliveries to Gaza, Miller said.

Blinken will also "discuss the need to ensure the defeat of Hamas, including in Rafah, in a way that protects the civilian population ... and advances Israel's overall security," according to the spokesman.

Washington has supported Israel with billions of dollars in military aid since the 7 October Al-Aqsa Flood operation but has become increasingly frustrated by its ally's failure to curb civilian deaths or let in vital aid.

Another major area of concern for the US has been the fate of Rafah in the far south of the Gaza Strip.

17:15 A senior Lebanon-based Hamas official said Wednesday that Israel's response to the latest proposal from the Palestinian group for a six-week truce in Gaza was "generally negative."

Osama Hamdan told a news conference in Beirut that mediators had conveyed the Israeli position a day earlier, but it was "generally negative ... and constitutes a step backwards," as talks continue in Qatar.

16:00 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has added a stop in Israel to his sixth Mideast tour since the outbreak of the war on Gaza, a US official told The Times of Israel.

Blinken's visit to Israel comes at a critical time, as US and Israeli officials are likely to discuss alternatives to a ground offensive on Gaza's southern city of Rafah next week, the White House said. 

Blinken is expected to visit Israel on Friday after spending Wednesday in Saudi Arabia and Thursday in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address US Republican senators via video linkup to their weekly policy lunch on Wednesday, days after the Senate’s Democratic leader Chuck Schumer gave a speech harshly criticizing him as an obstacle to peace. 

Netanyahu was invited by Sen. John Barrasso last week to address Senate Republicans during their annual retreat but he could not make it.

15:45 The Israeli army and the Shin Bet claimed that an airstrike in southern Gaza’s Rafah earlier this week killed senior officers in Hamas’ so-called emergency committee, according to Times of Israel.

In the Israeli strike carried out on Monday, Sayyid Qutb Hashash, Osama Hamad Dhahir, and Hadi Abu Al-Rous were killed, and Muhammad Awad Al-Malalhi was wounded, according to the Israeli army. 

The emergency committee is a Hamas body tasked with maintaining public order and civil control in the strip’s municipalities. 

Meanwhile, Israeli media reports said that Khaled Al-Batsh, a leader in the Islamic Jihad movement, was among those who were arrested by the Israeli forces in its attack on Al-Shifa Hospital in Khan Younis on Tuesday.

14:10 Israeli settlers brutally attacked three Palestinians, burning a car belonging to one of them, in the city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, WAFA reported.
On Tuesday, a Palestinian man was killed in the town of Aqraba, south of Nablus by live bullets fired by Israeli colonists. 
Fakhr Bassem Bani Jaber, 43, was “hit by a bullet in the heart” while he was standing in front of his house in Khirbet Al-Tawil, a hamlet outside Aqraba, said Aqraba Mayor Salah Bani Jaber. 
The Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement that the killing of Fakher Jaber is an act of incitement by extremist Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, who brags about distributing weapons to the colonists and protecting them. 
Israeli troops and settlers have killed at least 430 Palestinians in the West Bank since the Gaza war began.
13:40 Ismail Al-Thawabta, director of Gaza’s government media office, told Reuters that all of those killed at the Al-Shifa Hospital complex by Israeli forces had been wounded patients and displaced persons inside the hospital. 

“The Israeli occupation army practices lying and deception in spreading its narrative as part of justifying its continuous and law-breaking crimes, which violate international law, international humanitarian law,” he said. 

Israel’s military earlier claimed that it had killed approximately 90 fighters and had interrogated 300 suspects at the Al-Shifa Hospital since it entered the complex on Monday.

13:30 Israeli Eilat Port is set to lay off half of its 120 workers after the seaport took a major financial hit due to the crisis in Red Sea shipping lanes, Israel’s main labour federation said as reported by Times of Israel. 

The Histadrut labour federation said that the dock workers will hold a protest later on Wednesday. 

In December, Eilat Port’s chief executive told Reuters that an 85 percent drop in activity had been seen since Houthis in Yemen began their attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

13:05 The UK's largest aid delivery to Gaza has entered the territory, the British Foreign Office said Wednesday.

More than 2,000 tons of food aid that entered Gaza via the Jordanian land corridor were being distributed by the World Food Programme and will feed "more than 275,000 people," the office said.

Meanwhile, the UK’s foreign secretary David Cameron has said his country continues to “push Israel to allow more crossings to open and for longer, and for healthcare, water and sanitation to be restored.”

13:00 The World Health Organization (WHO) has published an infographic illustrating Israeli attacks on healthcare infrastructure in Gaza recorded between 7 October 2023 and 12 March 2024. It says: " Since 7 October, WHO has documented 410 attacks on healthcare in the Gaza Strip. Attacks have resulted in 685 fatalities, 902 injuries, damage to 99 facilities, and affected 104 ambulances."

Two-fifths (38 percent) of attacks were in Gaza City, a quarter (23 percent) in North Gaza, and over a quarter (28 percent) in Khan Younis, it added. 

WHO called for the respect of international law and active protection of civilians and healthcare.




12:15 The Israeli army claims to have killed around 90 militants and interrogated over 300 suspects at the medical complex of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza in what it called a "precise operational activity." A statement by the Israeli army said that an additional 160 "suspects" have been transferred to Israeli territory for further questioning. The Israeli army claimed that it has carried out these operations while "ensuring the safety of civilians, patients, medical teams, and equipment."

Witnesses in Palestine have reported witnessing large explosions and firefights near the hospital, where many displaced individuals seeking shelter from Israel's ground offensive and repeated bombardment of Gaza have taken refuge.

During the raid on the medical centre, an Al Jazeera journalist was among those detained. He said that he was held for 12 hours and subjected to severe beatings by Israeli forces.

11:45 US President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their call on Monday that he is not trying to undermine him politically, two sources with knowledge of the call told Axios on Wednesday. 

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has been fuming both in private and in public over what he saw as attempts by the White House and Democrats in Congress to weaken him politically inside Israel. 

Last week, the US intelligence community released its annual unclassified assessment, which said Netanyahu's political future is in jeopardy, further ratcheting up Netanyahu's concern. 

But a speech last week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer enraged Netanyahu. Schumer said Netanyahu has lost his way and called for new elections in Israel when the war winds down. Biden later backed Schumer's criticism of Netanyahu. 

However, Biden has been attempting a tricky manoeuvre: breaking with Netanyahu and his Gaza war strategy while sticking with Israel and its war on Gaza, Axios said. 

During the call with Biden on Monday, Netanyahu complained about Schumer's speech and Biden's endorsement of it. He also claimed the public political attacks against him in the US are interference in Israeli politics, the sources said. 

The sources said Biden pushed back and told Netanyahu he was not trying to undermine him and had no intention to intervene in Israeli domestic politics. 

Polls published Wednesday by all three major Israeli TV channels found that most Israelis want early elections when the war is over — and that if elections were held today, Netanyahu would be defeated by his rival Minister Benny Gantz.

11:00 The US Biden administration is weighing several alternatives to an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah, which it will propose to a high-level Israeli delegation set to visit Washington next week, two US officials told Axios. 

US officials said one idea is to delay a military operation in the city and focus on stabilizing the humanitarian situation in northern Gaza, where famine is "imminent," according to the UN. This plan would also involve constructing shelters for civilians evacuated from Rafah. 

Another idea is to focus in the first stage on securing Egypt's side of its border with Gaza as part of a joint US-Egypt-Israel plan to destroy tunnels under the border and create infrastructure to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza, US officials said.

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