Morning Chronicle - Blinken in Middle East to push Gaza ceasefire plan

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Blinken in Middle East to push Gaza ceasefire plan
Blinken in Middle East to push Gaza ceasefire plan / Photo: JACK GUEZ - POOL/AFP

Blinken in Middle East to push Gaza ceasefire plan

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed on with a Middle East crisis tour Tuesday to promote a Gaza ceasefire plan as fighting rocked the Palestinian territory and a blast killed four Israeli soldiers.

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Visiting Israel, Blinken said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had "reaffirmed his commitment" to the truce proposal and that Hamas's broad welcome for a UN Security Council vote backing it was a "hopeful" sign.

"Everyone has said yes, except for Hamas," to the ceasefire proposal, Blinken said, a day after the Council voted 14-1 to support it. "And if Hamas doesn't say yes, then this is clearly on them."

Blinken, on his eighth Middle East tour since the war broke out on October 7, also met two Israeli opposition leaders and was then headed to Jordan for a Gaza aid conference.

Amid the crisis diplomacy, Israel again bombed Gaza, and the army reported that four Israeli troops were killed in the far-southern city of Rafah on Monday in what Hamas claimed was a booby-trap explosion.

Israeli forces carried out fresh strikes, with hospital sources reporting several Palestinians killed in the centre of the territory.

Israel has faced an international outcry over the spiralling death toll in the war raging for over eight months, which saw 274 people killed during an Israeli special forces raid Saturday to rescue four hostages, according to health officials in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

The UN human rights office was "profoundly shocked at the impact on civilians" of the raid in Nuseirat, said spokesman Jeremy Laurence, who added that it was also "deeply distressed" that hostages are still being held in Gaza.

- UN Security Council -

Major powers on Monday voiced support for the ceasefire plan, first outlined by US President Joe Biden late last month, for a six-week truce and an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners.

The US-drafted resolution, which passed with only Russia abstaining, said it "welcomes" the plan, that Israel had accepted it and that it "calls upon Hamas to also accept it".

Hamas said Monday it "welcomes" elements of the UN resolution, and also reaffirmed its willingness to cooperate with mediators.

However, Hamas has also insisted on a permanent ceasefire, while Netanyahu has maintained that Israel's war aims remain to bring home all hostages and to destroy Hamas.

Netanyahu suffered a major blow on Sunday when Benny Gantz, a centrist former army chief, quit his war cabinet, mainly in protest at the failure so far to outline a plan for the post-war governance of Gaza.

On Tuesday, Blinken met Gantz as well as opposition leader Yair Lapid, both of whom have been highly critical of the right-wing premier and his conduct of the war.

Washington has also strongly pushed for a "day-after" plan for Gaza, promoted a governance role for Hamas's rival, the Palestinian Authority, and urged steps toward a two-state solution.

Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners strongly reject the idea of Palestinian statehood, arguing that it would pose a security threat to Israel and "reward terrorism".

Blinken said Tuesday "there has to be a clear political plan, a clear humanitarian plan to ensure that Hamas does not in any way, shape or form (remain) in control of Gaza and that Israel can move forward toward more enduring security".

- 'Siege and destruction' -

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas's October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized 251 hostages. More than 100 were released during a November truce. After special forces rescued four captives on Saturday, 116 hostages remain in Gaza, though the army says 41 of them are dead.

The Israeli army launched a devastating offensive on the Gaza Strip that has left at least 37,124 people dead, the majority of them civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry.

The latest Israeli deaths in Rafah took to 298 the military's overall losses in the Gaza military campaign since its ground offensive began on October 27.

An Israeli siege has deprived Gaza's 2.4 million people of most food, clean water, medicines and fuel and pushed many to the brink of starvation.

In Jabaliya in northern Gaza, Soad Al-Qanou said her young child Amjad is suffering from malnutrition.

"This war has destroyed our lives and turned them upside down," she told AFP. "There is no food, no drink. There is siege and destruction everywhere."

The future of Gaza, and ways to step up humanitarian relief, were to be discussed at a conference on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan on Tuesday, to be attended by UN agency chiefs, Blinken and Arab leaders.