Mediators seek Gaza truce as US calls for 'immediate ceasefire'

AFP , Monday 4 Mar 2024

Mediators in Cairo pushed on Monday with efforts towards a Gaza truce after Israel's top ally the United States stepped up pressure for a halt in fighting and more aid to enter the besieged Palestinian territory.

A Palestinian man transports sacks of humanitarian aid at the distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024, amid the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza. AFP


Bombardment and combat claimed 124 more lives within 24 hours, said the health ministry in Gaza which has been devastated and gripped by dire food shortages in the Israeli war on Gaza.

Qatari and Egyptian mediators met with US and Hamas envoys -- but no Israeli delegates so far -- in Cairo for a second day of talks aiming for a halt in fighting before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starts on March 10 or 11.

An Egyptian TV channel reported "significant progress" towards a truce deal without giving any more details, while a Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks were continuing.

The plan on the table aims for a six-week truce, the exchange of scores of remaining hostages for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and for more aid to enter Gaza -- but sticking points remain.

Hamas wants Israel to withdraw all forces, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the army will finish its campaign to destroy Hamas, including in far-southern Rafah where about 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering.

Israel has also demanded a list of all remaining captives. Israel has said it believes 130 of the original 250 captives taken by Hamas remain in Gaza, but that 31 have been killed.

US Vice President Kamala Harris called on Sunday for the six-week truce deal to be accepted while criticizing Israel in unusually strong language over insufficient aid deliveries into Gaza.

"Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate ceasefire for at least the next six weeks, which is what is currently on the table," she said in a speech in Selma, Alabama.

"Hamas claims it wants a ceasefire," she said. "Well, there is a deal on the table. And, as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal."

The vice president also stressed that Gazans are starving and that conditions are "inhumane" and demanded the Netanyahu government "must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses."


Gantz in Washington

Her comments come as President Joe Biden faces acute pressure in an election year over his steadfast support for Israel and Gaza's soaring civilian death toll, which the health ministry there put at 30,534, mostly women and children.

Harris as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, were later set to meet Israel's former military chief Benny Gantz in Washington.

Gantz is a member of Netanyahu's war cabinet -- but also a centrist political rival of the right-wing veteran premier, whom he harshly criticized before the war.

In a sign of political divisions, Gantz's US visit was criticized by Doudi Amsellem, minister of regional cooperation, in a post on social media platform X that said: "Mr. Gantz, your entry into government was intended to create unity at a time of emergency, not to be a Trojan horse".

Amid the crisis diplomacy, the Gaza conflict ground on unabated, with witnesses reporting clashes in Gaza City's Zeitun neighborhood and the main southern city of Khan Yunis.

Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas after its Al-Aqsa Flood operation in southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, according to Israeli official figures.

Israel's bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza have killed more than 30,000 people in under five months, most of them women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

The Hamas government media office said "dozens of air strikes" and "intense artillery shelling" hit areas across Gaza.

The Israeli military said it carried out "targeted raids" in the Khan Yunis area, killed "15 terrorists" over the past day, and detained dozens of suspects linked to Palestinian armed groups.


'Powder keg'

Gaza's hunger crisis came into stark relief last Thursday when more than 115 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in chaotic and bloody scenes around a convoy of aid trucks in Gaza City.

The UN Security Council voiced concern over Gaza's "alarming levels of acute food insecurity" and urged "the immediate, rapid, safe, sustained and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale".

Palestinian families have told AFP of grinding up animal feed and foraged plants, while the health ministry said at least 16 children have died of malnutrition in Gaza's aid-deprived north.

Blinken said on X that "it is imperative that we expand the flow of aid into Gaza to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation".

A Hamas official has said the group wants the truce deal to include "the entry of at least 400 to 500 trucks per day" carrying food, medicine, and fuel.

Witnesses told AFP that an Israeli strike hit an aid truck in central Gaza's Deir al-Balah on Sunday, killing several people.

The Israeli military denied the claim and told AFP: "It was not an aid truck that was struck."

It issued a statement saying a Hamas militant responsible for recruiting and fund-raising was traveling inside the truck and "was eliminated in an aerial strike".

The Gaza war has sparked violence across the region, drawing in Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, whose Huthi rebels have attacked shipping off its coast.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk warned that the war "has already generated dangerous spillover in neighboring countries, and I am deeply concerned that in this powder keg, any spark could lead to a much broader conflagration".

"This would have implications for every country in the Middle East and many beyond it," Turk said in his global update to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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