Home International Israel presses onslaught in Khan Younis as US pursues ceasefire quest

Israel presses onslaught in Khan Younis as US pursues ceasefire quest

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Israeli forces killed at least 14 Palestinians in airstrikes as they pressed their onslaught in Gaza’s main southern city Khan Younis on Tuesday, while the top US diplomat pursued a quest to broker a ceasefire in the four-month-old war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken flanked by US Ambassador to Egypt Herro Mustafa Garg meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi at Al-Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo, Egypt, Februray 6, 2024. Picture: Mark Schiefelbein, Pool via Reuters

By Nidal Al-Mughrabi, Humeyra Pamuk and Bassam Masoud

DOHA/CAIRO/GAZA – Israeli forces killed at least 14 Palestinians in airstrikes as they pressed their onslaught in Gaza’s main southern city Khan Younis on Tuesday, while the top US diplomat pursued a quest to broker a ceasefire in the four-month-old war.

Israel said its forces had killed dozens of Palestinian gunmen throughout Gaza in the past 24 hours with fighting focused on Khan Younis in the south and a threatened assault looming on a nearby border town teeming with displaced people.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Egypt for talks after a stop in Saudi Arabia during his latest trouble-shooting Middle East swing that Palestinians hope will nail down a ceasefire before Israeli forces storm Gaza’s southern fringes where over a million of Gaza’s people are sheltering.

It was Blinken’s fifth trip to the region since Hamas militants’ lightning attack on Israel from Gaza on October 7 triggered the war, and his first visit since Washington brokered an offer, with Israeli input, for the first extended ceasefire of the conflict. Hamas says it is still weighing the proposal.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Blinken and Saudi Arabia’s ruling crown prince discussed regional steps to achieve an enduring end to the war, tackling the humanitarian disaster in Gaza and limiting regional spillovers of the crisis.

Blinken departed Riyadh just after sunrise and arrived in Cairo where he began talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is then due to fly on to Qatar and Israel.

Washington has for weeks sought an elusive deal to secure the release of remaining hostages among those Hamas kidnapped in its Oct. 7 assault, as key to making headway on broader challenges such as the governance of post-war Gaza.

The ceasefire offer, delivered to Hamas last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators, awaits a reply from militants who say they want more guarantees it will stop Israel’s blitz on Gaza, against Israeli vows to keep fighting until Hamas is wiped out.

Washington also aims to prevent further escalation elsewhere in the Middle East, after days of US airstrikes on armed proxies of Iran, a major backer of Hamas, and further attacks on Red Sea shipping by Yemen’s Tehran-aligned Houthi militia.

In an update on Tuesday, Gaza’s Health Ministry said at least 27,585 Palestinians had been confirmed killed in Israel’s military campaign, with thousands more feared buried under vast tracts of rubble across the densely populated enclave. Some 107 had been killed in the past 24 hours, the ministry said.

Israel says 226 of its soldiers have been killed in its offensive, launched after militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza burst through the border fence and killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in a rampage through nearby Israeli communities.

ISRAELI FIREPOWER FOCUSED ON KHAN YOUNIS

Israeli forces on Tuesday kept up the pressure on Khan Younis, the focus of their offensive for weeks. Aerial and tank bombardment thundered through the shattered city overnight, with at least 14 people killed by air strikes since the pre-dawn hours, Palestinian residents and medics told Reuters.

They said Israeli tanks and aircraft continued to pound and besiege areas around Khan Younis’s two main hospitals – Nasser and Al-Amal. Israel’s military says Hamas militants use hospital premises for cover, which Gaza’s ruling Islamists deny.

Rafah, Palestinians’ last southern refuge from Israeli advances towards the border with Egypt, was battered by several Israeli air strikes and tank shelling overnight with medics reporting at least several wounded among the many displaced.

At makeshift tent camps in Rafah, untreated sewage flooded towards a shelter for the displaced, the latest sign of Gaza’s sanitation system collapsing, raising the spectre of disease.

Clothes flapped outside tents made from sheets of thin plastic. Hanan Abu Gabal cooked for her family in a pot over a small fire in the sand.

“We fled for our lives right in the middle of the battle. A rocket was thrown in the school and we barely made it out alive,” she said. “We were forcefully displaced from Khan Younis; they followed us. And now we’ve been forcefully displaced to Rafah, but where else are we meant to go?”

In Gaza City in the north of the narrow coastal enclave, residents reported further Israeli air strikes and tank shelling. Fighting has resurged in Gaza City two months after Israel said it had subdued the area.

In parts of urban north Gaza, displaced people venturing back to check the fate of their homes after some Israeli tanks pulled back told Reuters they were shocked to find few buildings still standing, with rows of multi-floor apartment blocks razed and roads flipped upside down by Israeli bulldozers and bombs.

During his Middle East swing, Blinken aims to win backing for US plans for what would follow a Gaza truce: rebuilding and running the tiny territory, and ultimately for a Palestinian state – which Israel now rules out – and for Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel.

The ceasefire proposal, as described by sources close to the talks, envisages a truce of at least 40 days when militants would free civilians among remaining hostages they are holding, followed by later phases to hand over soldiers and bodies, in exchange for releases of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

The only truce so far lasted just a week in November.

– REUTERS

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