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US in Gaza ceasefire push with UN vote, Middle East tour

– The United States stepped up pressure Monday for a Gaza ceasefire with a call for a UN Security Council vote on a truce as it redeployed Washington’s top diplomat to the region scarred by eight months of war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s regional tour was preceded by further bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces, with witnesses reporting overnight strikes in the centre of the strip and helicopter gunfire on ravaged Gaza City.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile faced domestic dissent, with war cabinet member Benny Gantz quitting Sunday over the premier’s handling of the war.

Washington sought to bring a ceasefire closer by tabling a draft resolution at the United Nations, calling for an “immediate ceasefire with the release of hostages” between Israel and militant group Hamas.

A staunch ally of Israel, the United States has been widely criticised for having blocked several earlier UN draft resolutions calling for a halt to the fighting.

A new push for a deal by President Joe Biden on May 31, separate from the UN, has so far failed to produce tangible results, while further doubts have been cast on a truce by an Israeli special forces raid to free hostages which killed scores of Palestinians on Saturday.

“People were screaming — young and old, women and men,” said Muhannad Thabet, 35, a resident of the crowded Nuseirat refugee camp area.

“Everyone wanted to flee the place, but the bombing was intense and anyone who moved was at risk of being killed due to the heavy bombardment and gunfire.”

The Israeli military said the extraction team and the four rescued captives came under heavy gun and grenade fire by militants, who killed one police officer, while Israel’s air force launched strikes that reduced nearby buildings to rubble.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said 274 people were killed and 698 wounded, in what it labelled the “Nuseirat massacre”, figures that could not be independently verified.

Among those were at least 64 children, 57 women and 37 elderly people, the ministry said.

– ‘Abandon the battle’  –

Many Israelis shed tears of joy when they heard of the release of the four captives, all reported in good health.

Noa Argamani, 26, Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41, had been abducted from the Nova music festival during Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel that triggered the war.

Pressure is mounting over Netanyahu’s failure to return remaining hostages and the departure of Gantz from the war cabinet marked a major political blow.

Gantz’s decision, which will not bring down the right-wing government, comes after he had issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu to present a post-war plan for Gaza by June 8.

Responding to the first major political blow to him during the conflict, Netanyahu told Gantz it was “not the time to abandon the battle”.

The four freed hostages are among only seven that Israeli forces have managed to rescue alive since Palestinian militants seized 251 in their October 7 attack.

Dozens were exchanged in a November truce for Palestinian prisoners. After Saturday’s rescue operation, 116 hostages remain in Gaza, although the army says 41 of them are dead.

Israel’s top diplomat rejected accusations “of war crimes” in the operation.

“We will continue to act with determination and strength, in accordance with our right to self-defence, until all of the hostages are freed and Hamas is defeated,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the hostage release and said reports “of another massacre of civilians are appalling… the bloodbath must end immediately”.

– Devastation, displacement –

With no breakthroughs on the horizon, Blinken is set to visit Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Qatar during his eighth regional tour since the war erupted.

“The only thing standing in the way of achieving this ceasefire is Hamas. It is time for them to accept the deal,” he said Saturday.

Hamas has insisted on a permanent truce and full Israeli withdrawal from all parts of Gaza — demands that Israel has firmly rejected.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after the October 7 attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory military offensive has killed at least 37,084 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.

The war has brought widespread devastation to Gaza and displaced most of its 2.4 million inhabitants, many whom are on the brink of starvation.

Aid has arrived only sporadically by truck, airdrops and sea. 

The US military said a temporary pier that had suffered storm damage late last month had been rebuilt and used on Saturday to deliver about 492 tonnes of “much needed humanitarian assistance”.

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