GAZA STRIP: At least 61 Palestinians were killed in overnight Israeli bombardment taking the death toll up to 31,645 people, the health ministry in Gaza said on Sunday, as Israel was preparing to send negotiators to new truce talks in Qatar.

Israel’s security cabinet and the smaller war cabinet were to meet to “decide on the mandate of the delegation in charge of the negotiations before its departure for Doha”, the Israeli prime minister’s office said.

Its statement did not specify when the delegation would leave for the latest round of talks which comes after Hamas submitted a new proposal for a pause in fighting and release of prisoners.

More than five months of war and an Israeli siege have led to dire humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, where the United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine for the coastal territory’s 2.4 million people.

German chancellor says planned Israeli assault on Rafah would make regional peace ‘very difficult’

As the flow of aid trucks into Gaza has slowed, a second ship was due to depart from Cyprus along a new maritime corridor to bring food and relief goods, Cypriot officials said.

On Saturday the US charity World Central Kitchen said its team had finished unloading supplies from a barge towed by Spanish aid vessel Open Arms which had pioneered the sea route.

The United Nations has reported particular difficulty in accessing north Gaza, where residents say they have resorted to eating animal fodder, and where some have stormed the few aid trucks that have made it through.

The head of the UN World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, appealed to Israel “in the name of humanity” not to launch an assault on Rafah.

An evacuation planned by the Israeli army ahead of launching its assault was not a practical solution, Tedros argued, noting that Palestinians there do not “have anywhere safe to move to”.

“This humanitarian catastrophe must not be allowed to worsen,” he said on social media platform X.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced domestic pressure to secure the release of captives captured by Hamas since the start of the war, with protesters in Tel Aviv on Saturday carrying banners urging a “hostage deal now”.

“The civilians… need to demand from their leaders to do the right thing,” said demonstrator Omer Keidar, 27.

The Hamas proposal calls for an Israeli withdrawal from “all cities and populated areas” in Gaza during a six-week truce and more humanitarian aid, according to an official from the Palestinian group.

With the situation on the ground increasingly dire, aid donors have turned to deliveries by air or sea.

But air and sea missions are no alternative to land deliveries, UN agencies say. Humanitarian groups have cited Israeli restrictions as among the obstacles they face.

The United States, which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military assistance, has also grown increasingly critical of Netanyahu over his handling of the war.

Washington has said it cannot support Israel’s long-threatened operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible, achievable, executable plan” to protect Palestinian civilians.

The crisis has only grown worse in Rafah, said medical staff at a clinic run by Palestinian volunteers that offers treatment for displaced Gazans.

“We’re facing shortages of medications, especially paediatric medicines,” said Dr Samar Gregea, herself displaced from Gaza City in the north.

“There are a lot of patients in the camp, with all children suffering from malnutrition,” she told AFP, also reporting the “widespread presence of hepatitis A”.

Children require foods high in sugars, like dates, which are currently unavailable, she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli troops would pursue a planned ground offensive in southern Gaza’s Rafah that has spurred fears of mass civilian casualties.

“No amount of international pressure will stop us from realising all the goals of the war: eliminating Hamas, releasing all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat against Israel,” Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting in a video released by his office.

Scholz opposes Rafah attack plan

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday after talks with Jordanian King Abdullah that a large number of civilian casualties that would result from an Israeli assault on Rafah would make regional peace “very difficult”.

This is one of the main arguments he will bring to talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neta­nyahu later on Sunday during his whirlwind trip to the region, he said.

The hastily arranged talks come after Israel on Friday approved a plan to attack the city on the southern edge of the shattered Palestinian enclave where more than half of its 2.3 million residents are sheltering after five months of war.

“Right now, it is about ensuring we come to a long-lasting ceasefire,” Scholz said after talks with Abdullah at his residence in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba.

“That would enable us to prevent such a ground offensive from taking place.”

Asked if he was prepared to exert pressure on Netanyahu to stop such an assault, Scholz said it was “very clear we must do everything so the situation does not get worse than it already is”.

“Israel has every right to protect itself… At the same time, it cannot be that those in Gaza who fled to Rafah are directly threatened by whatever military actions and operations are undertaken there,” he said.

Scholz did not directly answer a question about whether Germany would react to a large-scale Rafah offensive, for example by restricting German weapons exports to Israel. Germany has been one of Israel’s staunchest allies alongside the United States, consistently supporting it.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2024

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