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Blinken heads to Israel to press for ‘immediate’ truce

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to Israel today to press for a truce in Gaza, ahead of a key UN Security Council vote on a US draft resolution calling for an “immediate” ceasefire.

Israel’s main backer the United States announced it would submit for a vote on a draft to the Security Council on the need for an “immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal”, after repeatedly using its veto power to block other similarly worded resolutions.

After talks in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Mr Blinken flies to Israel, his sixth trip to the region since the war began with Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October.

Fighting in Gaza this week has centred around Al-Shifa hospital, the besieged territory’s largest, with Israel also vowing to launch a new ground assault in overcrowded Rafah in the south.

Israel said its spy chief would also head back to Qatar for more truce talks with US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators who are trying to negotiate a six-week pause.

The talks are focused on securing a truce agreement, hinged 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 famine is threatening its 2.4 million people.

Mr Blinken told reporters in Cairo “gaps are narrowing” and that the United States was “continuing to push for an agreement in Doha”.

Smoke from an Israeli bombardment pictured over Rafah in southern Gaza

“It’s difficult to get there, but I believe it is still possible,” Mr Blinken said.

He warned that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city where around 1.5 million people are hemmed in by the Egyptian border, would be “a mistake”.

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

‘Immediate, durable ceasefire’

The United States will submit its draft resolution to the UN Security Council today, a spokesman for the US representative to the world body said.

The US resolution “will unequivocally support ongoing diplomatic efforts aimed at securing an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as part of a hostage deal… we will be bringing this Resolution for a vote on Friday morning,” Nate Evans, spokesman for US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said in a statement.

After blocking an Algerian draft resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza at the end of February, US officials have been negotiating an alternative text focusing on support for a six-week truce in exchange for the release of hostages.

Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza has continued despite renewed diplomatic efforts, with the death toll in Gaza close to 32,000, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Palestinian children stand in queue to receive food from charity organizations in Deir al-Balah

Israel’s military said it had killed more than 140 Hamas fighters and arrested more than 350 since the start of its operation in and around Al-Shifa hospital on Monday.

“This is the operation in which we have apprehended the largest number of terrorists since the start of the war,” Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on yesterday evening.

Israel said militants were hiding out at the vast hospital complex and civilians had not been harmed. Hamas said the attack on an area crowded with patients and people seeking refuge was a crime.

Children ‘starving to death’

The bloodiest-ever Gaza war was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on 7 October that 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. Israel believes 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 who are presumed dead.

Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas and its response has killed at least 31,988 people, most of them women and children, have been killed, the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory says.

Gaza’s civilian infrastructure has also largely collapsed and UN agencies are warning the battered territory’s population is on the brink of famine.

A UN panel of independent experts said yesterday that children in Gaza were “starving to death”.

‘Strong message’

Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere, is the last urban centre to be so far spared an Israeli ground assault.

A Palestinian boy rides a donkey on the rubble of destroyed houses in Rafah

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted a ground incursion is the only way to root out Hamas despite warnings by Mr Blinken, the European Union, which called for an “immediate humanitarian pause” in Gaza, and others.

Tensions have also flared in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli troops and settlers have killed more than 440 Palestinians since the Gaza war began, according to Palestinian officials.

The Saudi government announced this week it would donate $40 million to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has been central to aid operations in Gaza.

Many of Israel’s allies suspended funding for the agency after Israel accused 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff of taking part in the October 7 attack, although several have since resumed their contributions.

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