20 Feb 2024, 16:50

Israel pounds Gaza ahead of UN truce vote

AZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories, Feb 20, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Israel hit Gaza with air strikes on Tuesday as world powers grappled with how to broker a ceasefire ahead of a UN Security Council vote that was expected to be blocked by a US veto.

A total of 103 Palestinians were killed in the past 24 hours of Israeli strikes and ground combat in the besieged Hamas-ruled territory, its health ministry said. 

The United Nations has sounded the alarm over the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, warning that food shortages could lead to an "explosion" of preventable child deaths.

More than four months of relentless fighting have flattened much of the coastal territory, pushed 2.2 million people to the brink of famine and displaced three-quarters of the population, according to UN estimates.
"How many of us have to die... to stop these crimes?" said Ahmad Moghrabi, a Palestinian doctor in southern Gaza's main city, Khan Yunis. 

"Where is the humanity?"

Global powers trying to navigate a way out of the spiralling crisis have so far come up short, with a push later Tuesday for a UN ceasefire resolution facing an expected US veto.

After months of struggling for a united response, all EU members except Hungary called Monday for an "immediate humanitarian pause". 

They also urged Israel not to invade Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, where nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering, many in makeshift tents. 

The city, the last untouched by Israeli ground troops, is also the main entry point for desperately needed relief supplies via neighbouring Egypt. 

Israel's strikes on the city are hampering humanitarian operations, while the food supply is disrupted by regular border closures, says the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

The scarcity of food and safe water has triggered a steep rise in malnutrition, the UN children's fund warned Monday. 

One in six children in northern Gaza are now acutely malnourished, UNICEF said, a situation poised to "compound the already unbearable level of child deaths".

- 'Dying of hunger or bombing' -

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures. 

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,195 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's health ministry.

For weeks, Israel has concentrated its military operations in Khan Yunis, the hometown of Hamas's leader in the territory Yahya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the October 7 attack.

"Troops are continuing intensive operations in western Khan Yunis and killed dozens of terrorists over the past day," the army said on Tuesday, adding that it had also struck a Hamas arms depot in the city triggering secondary explosions.

The Hamas government said dozens of air strikes had hit the city accompanied by tank fire.

Witnesses said Gaza City's southern Zeitoun neighbourhood had also come under heavy bombardment.

"We don't know where to go -- every place is being bombed," said Zeitoun resident Abdullah Al-Qadi, 67.

Farther south in Al-Zawayda, Ayman Abu Shammali said his wife and daughter had been killed in an Israeli missile strike.

"People in the north are dying from hunger, while here we are dying from bombing," he said.

- Veto threats -

Israel has rebuffed repeated calls to spare Rafah, including from its closest ally the United States.

It has warned that, unless all Israeli hostages still held in Gaza are freed by the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, it will push on with its offensive during the Muslim holy month, including in the city.

"If by Ramadan the hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area," said war cabinet member Benny Gantz. 

International mediators have been scrambling to avert the assault and its feared mass civilian casualties. 

At the UN Security Council, two rival ceasefire proposals have been put forward.

The first, drafted by Algeria, demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and "unconditional release of all hostages".

It met swift opposition from the United States, which put forward an alternative draft.

That text, seen by AFP on Monday, emphasises "support for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable". 

It also expresses concern for Rafah, warning that a major ground offensive "would result in further harm to civilians" and displacement.

According to a diplomatic source, the draft stands little chance of being adopted in its current form and risks a Russian veto.

While Washington has pressed a truce-for-hostages deal, weeks of talks involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators have failed to reach an agreement. 

Hamas has threatened to walk away from negotiations unless more aid gets into Gaza. It has also issued a number of other demands that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed as "delusional".

In Jerusalem, Israeli protesters on Monday marched to Netanyahu's residence, accusing him of abandoning the hostages.

"There is no other way to get these people back without a deal," said protester Eli Osheroff.

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