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UN chief in Egypt to push ceasefire during Gaza border visit

By AFP

March 23, 2024 06:01 PM


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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Egypt Saturday, set to visit the border with war-ravaged Gaza just across from the crowded city of Rafah where Israel vows to send in ground troops.

Despite warnings that such an operation would cause mass civilian casualties and worsen the humanitarian crisis gripping Gaza after nearly six months of war between Israel and Hamas militants, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will press ahead with the attack.

But his government is under growing international pressure to ease its bombardment and ground offensive, which the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza says has killed more than 32,000 people.

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

Israel vowed to destroy the militants, who also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes around 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 presumed dead.

Large parts of the territory have been reduced to rubble and the World Food Programme on Monday said Gazans are already "starving to death", with famine projected by May in northern Gaza without urgent intervention.

Israel's most staunch ally the United States, which provides it with billions of dollars in military aid, has repeatedly blocked Gaza ceasefire resolutions at the UN Security Council.

But Washington has also become increasingly vocal about the war's impact on civilians. On Friday it tried to pass a text mentioning an "immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal", but China and Russia vetoed the US text.

Guterres landed early Saturday in El-Arish, the Egyptian city closest to the Gaza border. He was expected to travel on to the Egyptian side of Rafah to meet aid workers and reiterate his call for a humanitarian ceasefire.

The Gaza health ministry, in a preliminary tally early Saturday, reported another 67 people killed overnight.

  'Precise' 

Israeli forces continued operations in and around Gaza's biggest hospital complex, Al-Shifa, for a sixth day on Saturday.

The army said a total of more than 170 militants had been killed, more than 800 suspects questioned, and weapons found.

The "precise" operation is being conducted without harm to civilians or medical personnel, the army said.

The UN's humanitarian agency, OCHA, said "health workers have been among those reported arrested and detained."

Mohammed, 59, who lives a short walk from the Al-Shifa complex in Gaza City, told AFP he had seen "many bodies" in the streets, buildings on fire and tanks blocking the roads.

"I feel that Gaza has become worse than the fires of hell," he said, giving only his first name.

 'Up in flames' 

Netanyahu on Friday reiterated his plan to send ground troops into the southern city of Rafah.

"I hope to do that with the support of the United States, but if we need to, we will do it alone," Netanyahu told visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that a ground invasion of Rafah is the only way to root out Hamas, but global leaders have warned that an incursion would worsen an already catastrophic situation.

"We have the same goals as Israel: the defeat of Hamas," Blinken wrote on social media platform X after meeting with Netanyahu, saying he would continue discussions with Israeli officials to find an alternative to a ground incursion.

Even without ground troops, Rafah is suffering regular bombardments.

Members of the Kawari family, who had taken refuge in Rafah after fleeing from Gaza City, told AFP a "huge explosion" killed four children and their grandmother during an air strike early Saturday.

"The entire house is destroyed. It went up in flames," said Fawzy Kawari, a relative of those who died.

To the north of Rafah, in Khan Yunis city on Friday, relatives of the Barbakh family mourned relatives killed in strikes -- and expressed anger at both Israel and Hamas.

"We want to understand what's the purpose of this war?" said Samih Barbakh. He accused Israeli forces of "annihilating us," before addressing a complaint to Hamas's self-exiled leader Ismail Haniyeh over the shortage of basic foods.

"Where are you Haniyeh?" Barbakh asked, saying a carton of eggs has risen tenfold in price "and it's not even available."

Blinken was touring the region to bolster truce talks in Qatar, where mediators are aiming to secure a deal likely to involve militants freeing hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody and the delivery of more relief supplies.

The top US diplomat accused China and Russia of "cynically" blocking Washington's Security Council resolution, which linked a truce to the release of hostages.

Russia and China, along with Arab nations, said the US text was too soft on Israel and diplomatic sources said a tougher resolution was expected to be put to a vote in New York on Monday.


AFP


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