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Israel attacks Gaza after truce talks end

– Israel launched fresh strikes in the Gaza Strip Friday after negotiators pursuing a long-stalled truce agreement left talks in Cairo without having secured a deal.

AFP journalists in the Gaza Strip early Friday witnessed artillery strikes on Rafah on the territory’s southern border with Egypt, while witnesses reported air strikes and fighting in Gaza City further north.

Israeli and Hamas negotiating teams left Cairo Thursday after what the Egyptian hosts described as a “two-day round” of indirect negotiations on the terms of a Gaza truce, according to Egyptian intelligence-linked Al-Qahera News.

Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and whose unprecedented October 7 attacks on Israel sparked the war there, said its delegation had left for Qatar, home to the Palestinian militant group’s political leadership.

“The negotiating delegation left Cairo heading to Doha. In practice, the occupation (Israel) rejected the proposal submitted by the mediators and raised objections to it on several central issues,” Hamas said in a message to other Palestinian factions, adding it stood by the proposal.

“Accordingly, the ball is now completely in the hands of the occupation.”

Hamas had said Monday that it had accepted a ceasefire proposal put forward by mediators.

The deal, the group said, involved a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, the return of Palestinians displaced by the war, and the exchange of hostages held by militants for Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel, with the aim of a “permanent ceasefire”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office at the time called the proposal “far from Israel’s essential demands”, but said the government would still send negotiators to Cairo.

Israel has long resisted the idea of a permanent ceasefire, insisting it must finish the job of dismantling Hamas.

– ‘A path forward’ –

Mediator Egypt said the two sides must show “flexibility” in order to strike a deal for a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner exchange in the seven-month war, according to a foreign ministry statement.

CIA director William Burns, who is also part of the truce efforts, is due to return to the United States from the Middle East on Friday, the White House said.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t still ongoing discussions,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

“We still believe that there’s a path forward, but it’s going to take some leadership on both sides.”

But at a makeshift refugee camp in Rafah, displaced Gazan Inas Mazen al-Shami said she was fed up with the stalling.

“We have no money and we don’t have the means to move from one place to another again and again. We have no means at all,” she said.

The Gaza war began with Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

During the attack, militants also seized some 250 hostages, of whom Israel estimates 128 remain in Gaza, including 36 who officials say are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,904 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

– Focus on Rafah –

All eyes have been on Rafah in recent weeks, where the population has swelled to around 1.5 million after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled fighting and bombardments in other areas of Gaza in a desperate search for safety.

Countries around the world, including key Israeli backer the United States, have urged Israel not to extend its ground offensive into Rafah, citing fears of a large civilian toll.

Israel insists, however, that in order to achieve its war aims, it must send ground troops into the city, where it claims senior Hamas military leaders are hiding.

Israel has since Tuesday conducted military operations in parts of Rafah, and seized control of a key border crossing into Egypt, sparking condemnation from aid groups that rely on the crossing to send assistance into the territory.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden issued his starkest warning yet to Israel since the start of the war, saying he would stop some US weapons supplies to Israel if it carried out its long-threatened ground assault.

Biden told CNN: “If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used… to deal with the cities.”

“We’re not gonna supply the weapons and the artillery shells that have been used,” he added.

In Israel’s first reaction to Biden’s threat, its UN ambassador Gilad Erdan called it a “very disappointing statement”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not respond directly to the US threat. 

However, he said in a statement: “If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone.”

It has been his repeated refrain in recent days as both international and domestic criticism of his handling of the war have intensified.

– ‘No fuel, no movement’ –

Israel’s military said Wednesday it was reopening another aid crossing into Gaza, Kerem Shalom, as well as the Erez crossing into north Gaza.

But the head of the UN humanitarian office in the Palestinian territories, Andrea De Domenico, told AFP that military activity at Kerem Shalom made civilian aid deliveries practically impossible.

He said the closure of the Rafah crossing, the only one equipped for fuel deliveries, had effectively halted aid operations.

“In Gaza there are no stocks” of fuel, he said. That “means no movement. It is completely crippling the humanitarian operations.”

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini announced late Thursday that the agency was closing its east Jerusalem headquarters after the latest in a spate of attacks by “Israeli extremists” put its staff at “serious risk”.

Lazzarini said the compound would remain closed “until proper security is restored”.

A US container ship loaded with aid for Gaza left Cyprus Thursday in a new test of a maritime corridor to get relief into the besieged Palestinian territory, the Cyprus government said.

US military engineers have been assembling a temporary pier to unload aid deliveries but the work has been delayed by heavy seas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the pier will “significantly increase” the volume of aid reaching Gaza but said it was not a “substitute” for greater land access via Israel.

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