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US working to keep Israel, Hamas engaged in Gaza truce efforts

Published 05/10/2024, 07:47 PM
Updated 05/10/2024, 07:51 PM
© Reuters. A wounded Palestinian sits on debris at the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 9, 2024. REUTERS/Hatem Khaled
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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

CAIRO (Reuters) - Washington said it was trying to keep Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas engaged "if only virtually" in Gaza truce efforts as a U.N. agency warned that humanitarian aid stocks in the devastated enclave have hit "the bottom of the barrel."

Hamas said on Friday it would consult with other militant Palestinian factions on its strategy to negotiate a halt to the war triggered by its Oct. 7 onslaught into Israel.

The United Nations warned that aid for Gaza could grind to a halt within days after Israel seized control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, closing the vital route on which the enclave of 2.3 million Palestinians depends.

Talks on a ceasefire and a release of hostages held by Hamas ended in Cairo on Thursday without agreement after Israel said a proposal by Qatari and Egyptian mediators included elements that were unacceptable.

Hamas, which said it had accepted the proposal, said in a statement that Israel's "rejection ... returned things to the first square."

The White House called the end of the talks, which CIA Director William Burns was helping to mediate, "deeply regrettable," but said the U.S. believed the differences were surmountable.

"We are working hard to keep both sides engaged in continuing the discussion, if only virtually," White House national security spokesman John Kirby (NYSE:KEX) said.

Despite heavy U.S. pressure, Israel has said it will proceed with an assault on the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced people have sought refuge and Israeli forces say Hamas fighters are dug in.

Israeli tanks captured the main road dividing Rafah's eastern and western sections on Friday, effectively encircling the eastern side in an assault that has caused Washington to hold up delivery of some military aid to its ally.

The White House said it was closely watching the Israeli operations "with concern," but they appeared to be localized around the shuttered Rafah crossing and did not reflect a large-scale invasion.

"Once again, we urge the Israelis to open up that crossing to humanitarian assistance immediately," said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.

Israel's plan to assault Rafah has ignited one of the biggest rifts in generations with its main ally, the United States.

In a report to Congress, President Joe Biden's administration on Friday said Israel's use of U.S.-supplied weapons in Gaza may have breached international humanitarian law, stepping up criticism of its key ally.

But the administration also said that due to the chaos of the war it could not verify specific instances where the use of those arms might have violated international law, falling short of making a definitive assessment on the issue.

The French foreign ministry also called on Israel to reopen the Rafah crossing in a statement urging "Israeli authorities to cease this military operation without delay and return to the path of negotiations."

Nearly 35,000 people have died in the war, according to health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza. Some 1,200 people were killed in Israel and 253 taken hostage in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that triggered the conflict, according to Israeli tallies.

"VIRTUALLY NO HUMANITARIAN AID"

Residents described almost constant explosions and gunfire east and northeast of Rafah on Friday, with intense fighting between Israeli forces and militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Hamas said it ambushed Israeli tanks near a mosque in the east of the city.

Israel has ordered civilians out of the eastern part of Rafah, forcing tens of thousands of people to seek shelter outside the city, previously the last refuge of more than a million who fled other parts of the enclave during the war.

Israel says it cannot win the war without rooting out thousands of Hamas fighters it believes are deployed in Rafah. Hamas says it will fight to defend it.

Supplies were already running short and aid operations could halt within days as fuel and food stocks are used up, U.N. aid agencies said.

"For five days, no fuel and virtually no humanitarian aid entered the Gaza Strip, and we are scraping the bottom of the barrel," said the UNICEF Senior Emergency Coordinator in the Gaza Strip, Hamish Young.

Aid agencies say the battle has threatened hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians.

"It is not safe, all of Rafah isn't safe, as tank shells landed everywhere since yesterday," Abu Hassan, 50, a resident of Tel al-Sultan west of Rafah told Reuters via a chat app.

"I am trying to leave but I can't afford 2,000 shekels ($540) to buy a tent for my family," he said. "There is an increased movement of people out of Rafah even from the western areas, though they were not designated as red zones by the occupation."

Israeli tanks have sealed off eastern Rafah from the south, capturing and shutting the only crossing between the enclave and Egypt. An advance on Friday to the Salahuddin road that bisected the enclave completed the encirclement of the "red zone" from which they ordered residents out.

The Israeli military said its forces in eastern Rafah had located several tunnel shafts, and troops backed by an air strike fought at close quarters with groups of Hamas fighters, killing several.

© Reuters. A wounded Palestinian sits on debris at the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 9, 2024. REUTERS/Hatem Khaled

It said Israeli jets had hit several sites from which rockets and mortar bombs had been fired towards Israel in recent days.

The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly backed a Palestinian bid to become a full U.N. member by recognizing it as qualified to join and recommending the U.N. Security Council "reconsider the matter favorably."

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