US Secretary of State Antony Blinken due in Mideast in new bid to secure truce

AFP || Shining BD

Published: 3/20/2024 5:00:39 AM

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to return Wednesday to the Middle East in a new bid to secure a truce in the Israel-Hamas war.

Following a failed attempt to secure a ceasefire in the war in the Gaza Strip by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last week, a new round of negotiations hosted by key mediator Qatar has begun.

On the ground, however, there was no sign of letup in the war that has devastated much of the Gaza Strip and forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to seek refuge in the south of the besieged territory.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after an unprecedented attack by Hamas on October 7 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 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 who are presumed dead.

Israel has responded with a relentless offensive against Hamas that has killed at least 31,819 people, most of them women and children, according to Gaza's health ministry.

- 'Starvation as method of war' -

Nearly six months into the war, Israel's key backer the United States has repeatedly called on its ally to allow an increase in the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Secretary of State Blinken was due in regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and in Egypt, which neighbours Gaza and has been involved in previous mediation efforts, on Thursday.

He had earlier this week said everyone in Gaza was now suffering "severe levels of acute food insecurity".

"That's the first time an entire population has been so classified," he said during a visit to the Philippines.

A UN-backed assessment meanwhile said 300,000 people in the territory's north would face famine by May without a surge of aid.

UN rights chief Volker Turk said Israel was blocking aid and conducting the conflict in a way that "may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war".

AFPTV footage from Gaza showed desperate crowds gathered at the Jabalia refugee camp to get a portion of carrot soup.

"We came to queue, but they threw us out," said Jabalia resident Musaab al-Masry, lamenting that there was not enough food for everyone.

Israel's spy chief David Barnea kicked off a new round of talks with Egyptian and Qatari mediators on Monday.

Qatar's foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said he was "cautiously optimistic" but it was "too early to announce any successes".

Ansari said they were expecting a counter-proposal to be presented to Hamas after both sides rejected previous offers, adding that technical talks would continue.

Despite the resumption of talks, there was little indication of an imminent agreement.

Israeli troops on Tuesday were pressing an assault on Gaza's biggest hospital, which they allege Hamas uses for military purposes, saying more than 50 fighters had been killed and around 300 suspects arrested and taken for questioning.

Lashing out over the Israeli operation at the Al-Shifa complex, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh accused Israel of seeking to "sow chaos and perpetuate violence" and "sabotage ongoing negotiations in Doha".

Israel has long accused militants of using hospitals as bases and troops previously raided Al-Shifa last November, sparking an international outcry.

Military spokesman Daniel Hagari said this week that Palestinian militants and commanders had since returned to Al-Shifa "and turned it into a command centre".

An army statement late Tuesday said "dozens of prominent terrorists" from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were among those arrested in the operation.

Witnesses reported air strikes and tanks near the hospital compound, which is crowded with thousands of displaced civilians, as well as the sick and wounded.

- 'Screamed in fear' -

According to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, 90 people were killed in the early hours of Wednesday, including 30 in Gaza City.

Another major area of concern for the United States, the United Nations and aid groups has been the fate of Rafah in the far south of the Gaza Strip.

Since the war erupted, the tiny area's population has boomed to around 1.5 million with hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes elsewhere in the territory seeking shelter there.

US President Joe Biden has put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pull back from a threatened full-scale ground operation.

But Netanyahu said he told Biden "we are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion".

The city is already under bombardment, with AFPTV footage showing residents picking through debris of buildings on Tuesday after another night of strikes.

Torrential rains piled onto the misery overnight, with many displaced having nowhere to run but makeshift tents.

Oum Abdullah Alwan said her children "screamed in fear" because "we can't tell the difference between the sound of rain and the sound of shelling".

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