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Gaza war enters seventh month, new truce talks expected

A girl rides a scooter past the rubble of a destroyed building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 5, 2024
A girl rides a scooter past the rubble of a destroyed building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 5, 2024 - Copyright AFP LUIS TATO
A girl rides a scooter past the rubble of a destroyed building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 5, 2024 - Copyright AFP LUIS TATO
Belal AlSabbagh with Fiachra Gibbons in Jerusalem

The Israel-Hamas war that has devastated the Gaza Strip entered its seventh month on Sunday, with talks towards a truce and hostage release deal expected to resume in Cairo.

As the bloodiest ever Gaza war passed the half-year mark, Israel’s government has faced a growing international backlash against its military campaign, and mass street protests at home.

Relations with top ally Washington have deteriorated, and the Middle East is on edge over a potential response from Hamas ally Iran to a deadly strike on Tehran’s consulate building in Syria last week that was widely blamed on Israel.

Israel has faced a storm of international outrage over the killing of seven aid workers of the US-based food charity World Central Kitchen in a Gaza air strike on April 1.

US President Joe Biden in a terse phone call with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday demanded vastly greater aid deliveries into the territory now threatened by famine.

Biden also urged an “immediate ceasefire” and hinted at making US support for Israel conditional on curtailing the killing of civilians and improving humanitarian conditions.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also demanded that “this terrible conflict must end”.

“We continue to stand by Israel’s right to defeat the threat from Hamas terrorists and defend their security,” Sunak said. “But the whole of the UK is shocked by the bloodshed.”

A Palestinian father-of-six in northern Gaza, Muhammad Yunis, 51, told AFP the territory’s 2.4 million people desperately need a reprieve from the bombardment and suffering.

“It’s been half a year and the bombing and starvation continue,” said the man from Beit Lahia, now a broken landscape of shattered buildings.

“Watching the thin bodies of our children takes away our souls … I feel helpless and humiliated,” he said.

“Isn’t the bombing, death and destruction enough? There are bodies still under the rubble. We can smell the stench.”

– Hospital an ’empty shell’ –

The Gaza war broke out on October 7 with an unprecedented attack from Gaza by Hamas militants that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants also took more than 250 hostages, and 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 who the army says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,137 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

The Israeli military said Sunday another four of its troops had been killed in Gaza, bringing the toll to 260 since it launched ground operations in late October.

Vast areas of Gaza have been turned into a rubble-strewn wasteland and its people have been trapped in a dire humanitarian crisis amid an Israeli siege.

Gaza has received only sporadic aid via a road crossing with Egypt, airdrops and two sea shipments — but aid agencies warn the deliveries fall far short of the dire needs.

Under US pressure, Israel has pledged to allow for the first time aid deliveries through its Erez border crossing with northern Gaza.

After months of war, most of Gaza’s hospitals are out of action and the largest, Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, lies largely in ruins.

After fierce battles there, Al-Shifa is “now an empty shell with human graves”, said World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

– New truce talks –

Months of stop-start ceasefire talks have made no headway since a week-long truce in November saw some hostages exchanged for Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel.

In a new push in Cairo, CIA Director Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani will join Egyptian officials for indirect talks from Sunday between the Israeli and Hamas delegations, Egypt’s Al-Qahera News said.

Hamas has confirmed that its core demands are a complete ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces — conditions Israel has previously rejected.

Washington blames the failure so far on Hamas’s refusal to release sick and other vulnerable hostages, while Qatar has said Israeli objections to the return of displaced Gazans are the main obstacle.

Biden wrote to Egypt and Qatar’s leader ahead of the talks urging them to secure commitments from Hamas to “agree to and abide by a deal”, a senior administration official told AFP. 

Biden’s call with Netanyahu included discussions on “empowering his negotiators” to reach a deal, said US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

– Mass protests –

Netanyahu has come under intense pressure at home from families and supporters of hostages, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.

Ten of thousands rallied in Tel Aviv and other cities Saturday, demanding “elections now”.

Among the protesters was Israel’s centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid, who was later headed to Washington, his Yesh Atid party said.

Lapid was expected to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

He will also meet Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who last month called for a snap Israeli election to give voters a chance to get rid of Netanyahu.

Fears that the war could spread have intensified after Iran vowed to hit back for the killing of seven of its Revolutionary Guards in an air strike Monday on the consular annex of its embassy in Damascus.

Iran’s leaders have pledged retaliation, and the leader Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, has called the consulate strike a “turning point”.

Israel’s military said Sunday its warplanes had struck Hezbollah sites in eastern Lebanon’s Baalbek region, where the group has a strong presence, in retaliation for one of its drones being downed.

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AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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