Gaza war cease-fire effort has setback

Netanyahu pulls negotiators back

Israeli soldiers with a surfboard on the roof of their vehicle drive towards the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli soldiers with a surfboard on the roof of their vehicle drive towards the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)


JERUSALEM -- International efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas suffered a setback on Wednesday as Israel reportedly recalled its negotiating team, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of hobbling the high-stakes negotiations by sticking to "delusional" demands.

Netanyahu's remarks came hours after local media reported that the Israeli leader had ordered an Israeli delegation not to continue talks in Cairo, raising concerns over the fate of the negotiations and sparking criticism from the families of the roughly 130 remaining captives, about a fourth of whom are said to be dead.

The relatives of the hostages said Netanyahu's decision amounted to a "death sentence" for their loved ones.

In another development, the Israeli Finance Ministry has blocked deliveries of food for the Gaza Strip because the shipments were intended to reach the main U.N. agency for Palestinians, Israel's finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said Tuesday.

The mediation efforts, steered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, have been working to bring the warring sides toward an agreement that might secure a truce in the monthslong war, which has reportedly killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, according to local health officials. The fighting has destroyed vast parts of Gaza, displaced most of the territory's population and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe.

"In Cairo, Israel did not receive any new proposal from Hamas on the release of our captives," Netanyahu said in a statement. "A change in Hamas' positions will allow progress in the negotiations."

Hamas meanwhile said Netanyahu was to blame. Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said Israel had put forward a proposal that strayed from agreements reached during earlier cease-fire talks.

On Tuesday, CIA chief William Burns and David Barnea, the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, attended the talks in the Egyptian capital, but there were no signs of a breakthrough.

The talks continued Wednesday at a lower level, even as deadly violence persisted both in the Gaza Strip and along Israel's border with Lebanon, where fighting has simmered since the war broke out.

Israeli media reported Wednesday that Netanyahu told his delegation not to return to the talks unless Hamas softens its demands.

The sides have been far apart on their terms for a deal. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until "total victory" over Hamas and the return of all the remaining hostages.

Hamas has said it will not release all the captives until Israel ends its offensive, withdraws from Gaza and releases a large number of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants. Netanyahu has rejected those demands, calling them "delusional."

The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, who see their lengthy captivity as an enduring symbol of the failure of the state to protect its citizens from Hamas' attack.

A group representing the families of the hostages called Netanyahu's reported decision to keep the delegation away from the talks "scandalous" and said the families would set up a "mass barricade" outside the Israeli Defense Ministry unless Netanyahu agreed to meet them.

Over 100 hostages were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in return for 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

FOOD BLOCKED

Smotrich, a hard-right settler leader, said in a statement that he had issued a directive not to transfer flour shipments to the U.N. agency, known as UNRWA, citing allegations that some of its employees were affiliated with Hamas, including 12 accused of participating in the armed group's Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Last week, a subcontractor handling the shipments for UNRWA received a call from Israel's customs agency -- which is housed in Smotrich's ministry -- ordering it not to process any UNRWA goods in its warehouse, said Juliette Touma, an UNRWA spokesperson.

A load of about 1,050 containers -- much of it flour -- has been held up at the Israeli port of Ashdod, Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, told reporters Friday. The amount was enough to feed 1.1 million people for a month, he said. Lazzarini said UNRWA still has enough supplies to feed Palestinians in Gaza for three months, but only because the food is now being routed through Egypt rather than Israel.

Israel's action once again put it at odds with the Biden administration, which has criticized the Israeli conduct of the war in increasingly blunt terms. "That flour has not moved the way that we had expected it would move, and we expect that Israel will follow through on its commitment to get that flour into Gaza," Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden's national security adviser, told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

Smotrich said another aid distribution mechanism would be found "that would not reach Hamas," which he said was using UNRWA as a "key part of its war machine." UNRWA has said it is investigating the allegations, but has stood by its work as essential humanitarian relief in a complex situation.

In an effort to get more aid into Gaza, U.S., British and European officials pushed last month for Israel to facilitate the entry of aid through Ashdod.

Humanitarian aid already enters Gaza by land via the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel, although it can be "very challenging to get deliveries going outside of Rafah north," Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said Tuesday.

Under the plan, shipments would arrive at Ashdod before entering Gaza through Kerem Shalom. After a visit from Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, Israeli officials indicated that the initiative would proceed.

But their signals came before the allegations were unearthed, and the proposal, for now, appears to have been complicated by Smotrich's order blocking the shipments.

Aid officials say far more relief is necessary to ease the humanitarian crisis affecting the more than 2 million Palestinian residents of Gaza amid dire shortages of food, water and medicine.

Roughly 1.7 million people in the territory have been displaced, many of whom are facing extreme hunger, according to the United Nations. More than 1 million people have squeezed in and around the southern city of Rafah, joining swelling tent cities near the Egyptian border.

HOSPITAL EVACUATED

Palestinians began evacuating the main hospital in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, according to videos shared by medics Wednesday. Weeks of heavy fighting had isolated the medical facility and claimed the lives of several people inside it.

Now in its fifth month, the war has devastated Gaza's health sector, with less than half of its hospitals only partially functioning as scores of people are killed and wounded in daily bombardments. Israel accuses the militants of using hospitals and other civilian buildings as cover.

Khan Younis is now the main target of a rolling ground offensive that Israel has said will soon be expanded to Gaza' southernmost city of Rafah.

Some 1.4 million people -- over half the territory's population -- are crammed into tent camps and overflowing apartments and shelters in Rafah, on the Egyptian border.

The videos of the evacuation in Khan Younis showed dozens of Palestinians carrying their belongings in sacks and making their way out of the Nasser Hospital complex. A doctor wearing green hospital scrubs walked ahead of the crowd, some of whom were carrying white flags.

The Israeli military said it had opened a secure route to allow civilians to leave the hospital, while medics and patients could remain inside. Troops have been ordered to "prioritize the safety of civilians, patients, medical workers, and medical facilities during the operation," it said.

The military had ordered the evacuation of the hospital and surrounding areas last month.

But as with other health facilities, medics said patients were unable to safely leave or be relocated, and thousands of people displaced by fighting elsewhere remained there.

Palestinians say nowhere is safe in the besieged territory, as Israel continues to carry out strikes in all parts of it.

The Gaza Health Ministry said last week that Israeli snipers on surrounding buildings were preventing people from entering or leaving the hospital. It said 10 people have been killed inside the complex over the past week, including three shot and killed on Tuesday.

The ministry says around 300 medical staff were treating some 450 patients, including people wounded in strikes.

It says 10,000 displaced people were sheltering in the facility.

The war in Gaza has become one of the deadliest and most destructive air and ground offensives in recent history.

In addition to the at least 28,576 Palestinians who have been killed, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, over 68,000 people have been wounded in the war.

Around 80% of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes, large areas in northern Gaza have been completely destroyed and a humanitarian crisis has left a quarter of the population starving.

In northern Israel, meanwhile, a rocket attack killed a female soldier, the Israeli military said, and wounded eight people when one of the projectiles hit a military base in the town of Safed on Wednesday.

Israel carried out airstrikes in southern Lebanon in response, killing four people, including a Syrian woman and her two Lebanese children, and wounding at least nine, Lebanese security officials and local media said.

The U.N. children's agency condemned the killings of "two innocent children" and called "for the protection of children in times of war and at all times."

Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, which supports Hamas, have traded fire along the border nearly every day since the start of the war in Gaza, raising the risk of a wider conflict.

Hezbollah did not immediately claim responsibility for the rocket attack.

Information for this article was contributed by Tia Goldenberg, Samy Magdy, Wafaa Shurafa, Melanie Lidman and Bassem Mroue of The Associated Press; and by Aaron Boxerman and Patrick Kingsley of The New York Times.

  photo  Palestinians fleeing the Israeli offensive on Khan Younis arrive at Rafah, Gaza Strip. Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
 
 
  photo  Israeli soldiers drive a tank inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
 
 
  photo  Men carry the bodies of Palestinians killed in the Israeli bombing of the Nusseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip at Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
 
 
  photo  Israeli soldiers take part in a training drill on an area in southern Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
 
 
  photo  Trucks line up on an area at the Egyptian side as seen from Israeli border at the Nitzana border crossing with Egypt, southern Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
 
 
  photo  Palestinians fleeing the Israeli offensive on Khan Younis arrive at Rafah, Gaza Strip. Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
 
 
  photo  Palestinians fleeing the Israeli offensive on Khan Younis arrive at Raf(ah, Gaza Strip. Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
 
 
  photo  An Israeli medical team evacuate a person injured by a rocket fired from Lebanon, at Ziv hospital in Safed, northern Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. Israeli media reported 1 killed and eight wounded in the rocket attack. The town, which is around 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the border is farther south than most of the daily border skirmishes with Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group. (AP Photo/Gil Eliyahu)
 
 
  photo  The wife of Israeli reservist Yair Cohen touches his flag-draped casket during his funeral at Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Cohen, 30, was killed during Israel's ground operation in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli army has been battling Palestinian militants in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
 
 



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