Blinken in Israel ahead of UN vote on Gaza ceasefire plan

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Written By Maya Cantina

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Shortly after arriving in Tel Aviv, following talks in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Antony Blinken began talks with Benjamin Netanyahu.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Israel Friday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of a UN Security Council vote on a US draft resolution noting the need for an “immediate” ceasefire that would allow in more aid.

Washington announced it would submit for a vote on Friday its draft on the necessity of an “immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal”, after repeatedly using its veto power to block earlier ceasefire resolutions.

ALSO READ: Blinken heads to Mideast as Israel-Hamas war threatens famine

Shortly after arriving in Tel Aviv, following talks in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Blinken began talks with Netanyahu. Pressure on the Israeli leader from Washington and other allies has intensified over Israel’s war against Hamas militants in Gaza.

Israel said on Friday it was continuing military operations for a fifth day in and around Al-Shifa hospital, the largest medical facility in a besieged territory where most hospitals are no longer functioning, according to the United Nations.

The United States, which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military assistance, has become increasingly vocal about the impact of the nearly six-month war on civilians in Gaza.

Israel has vowed to send troops into Gaza’s southernmost point, Rafah, against Hamas militants there.

– ‘A mistake’ –

With most of Gaza’s population sheltering in the area along the Egyptian border, the prospect has provoked widespread international alarm.

During his tour, Blinken said a ground offensive in Rafah would be “a mistake”.

“There is no place for the civilians amassed in Rafah to get out of harm’s way,” he said in Cairo.

“There is a better way to deal with the ongoing threat posed by Hamas.”

The European Union’s 27 leaders on Thursday also urged against a Rafah ground operation, saying it “would worsen the already catastrophic humanitarian situation”.

The head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, was set to meet CIA chief William Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel for further truce talks in Qatar’s capital Doha.

ALSO READ: Battle rages around Gaza’s largest hospital in Israel-Hamas war

The effort hinges on the release of hostages held by Hamas militants in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody and the delivery of more aid to Gaza, where 2.4 million people are living under imminent threat of famine.

Blinken said in Cairo on Thursday that “gaps are narrowing” and Washington was “continuing to push for an agreement in Doha”.

“It’s difficult to get there, but I believe it is still possible,” Blinken said on his sixth trip to the region since the war began with Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel.

A Hamas official said Israel’s response to the group’s latest proposal had been “largely negative”.

Hamas’s October attack resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes around 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 presumed dead.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has carried out a relentless bombardment alongside a ground invasion, killing at least 31,988 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory says.

The latest version of the US draft Security Council resolution, seen by AFP, notes the need for “an immediate and sustained ceasefire to protect civilians on all sides, allow for the delivery of essential humanitarian assistance, and alleviate humanitarian suffering”.

The document adds that it supports “diplomatic efforts to secure such a ceasefire in connection with the release of all remaining hostages”.

ALSO READ: Rights advocates denounce ‘systemic abuse’ in Israeli prisons

Hours before the Security Council meeting, Britain and Australia issued a statement stressing the “urgency of an immediate cessation of fighting in Gaza to allow aid to flow and hostages to be released”.

EU leaders also appealed for an “immediate humanitarian pause” at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

After blocking an Algerian draft resolution in February that called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza, US officials have been negotiating the alternative text focusing on support for diplomatic efforts on the ground for a six-week truce in exchange for hostage releases.

However, the US draft does not explicitly use the word “call”, instead simply stating that a ceasefire is imperative.

Russia said the formulation was too weak and China said it supported “meaningful actions” by the Security Council without saying if it would back the resolution.

Israel’s military said on Friday that it had killed more than 150 militants “in the area of” Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital since the start of its operation on Monday.

– ‘Pressuring’ –

Hundreds of suspects have been arrested and weapons found, it added.

In a video published Wednesday, the army’s spokesman said no civilians or medical personnel had been hurt in the operation which army chief Herzi Halevi has said is “very important for pressuring the negotiations”.

AFP footage showed streams of people fleeing south along Gaza’s coast to escape the hospital onslaught.

The UN humanitarian agency, OCHA, cited Palestinian Civil Defence as saying the army “reportedly refused to allow civil defence crews to reach and rescue hundreds of injured people” around the hospital.

A 60-year-old patient who gave his name as Younis said he had been forced outside without clothes, blindfolded and interrogated before being freed.

ALSO READ: Israel may be using starvation as ‘weapon of war’ – UN

The soldiers “beat all the young men and arrested them”, he told AFP.

The Israeli military said it was working “to identify unusual cases that deviate from what is expected” of troops.

A UN panel of independent experts said Thursday that children in Gaza were “starving to death”, after UN rights chief Volker Turk accused Israel of blocking aid and conducting the conflict in a way that “may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war”.

Israel rejected his statement.

Separately, Israeli Colonel Moshe Tetro of COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, dismissed as “pure lies” comments that there is “no food, no fuel, there is famine” in Gaza.

He spoke at Gate 96, a new crossing through which aid trucks were entering northern Gaza from Israel.

© Agence France-Presse

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