DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli warplanes struck two urban refugee camps in central Gaza on Saturday, as the Biden administration approved a new emergency arms sale to Israel despite calls persistent ceasefire in the face of increasing civilian deaths, hunger and massive displacement in the enclave.
Even a brief cessation of fighting seems out of reach. A senior Hamas official told The Associated Press in Beirut on Saturday that the group has not budged from its position that a permanent ceasefire must be the starting point for any further release of Israeli and foreign hostages. held by the group, which goes against a recent Egyptian proposal for a staggered end to the war.
This is a demand that Israel will not fail to reject. Israel has said it will continue its unprecedented air and ground offensive until it has dismantled Hamas, a goal seen by some as unattainable due to the militant group’s deep roots in Palestinian society. The United States protected Israel diplomatically and continued to supply weapons.
Israel says ending the war now would mean victory for Hamas, a position shared by the Biden administration which has at the same time urged Israel to do more to avoid harming Palestinian civilians.
The war, sparked by Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, has displaced about 85 percent of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million residents, sending large numbers seeking refuge in the security zones designated by Israel, which the army nevertheless also bombed. This has left Palestinians with the heartbreaking feeling that nowhere is safe in this small enclave.
Gaza’s health ministry said Saturday that the Palestinian death toll since the start of the war stood at 21,672, with an additional 56,165 people injured during the same period. In the past 24 hours, 165 people were killed, ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said. The ministry does not distinguish between combatant and civilian deaths, but said about 70 percent of those killed were women and children.
Some of the latest deaths were reported as Israeli airstrikes targeted the urban refugee camps of Nuseirat and Bureij overnight and into Saturday.
Mustafa Abu Wawee, a resident of Nuseirat, said a strike hit the home of one of his relatives, killing two people.
“The (Israeli) occupation is doing everything to force people to leave,” he said by telephone as he and others searched for four people missing under the rubble. “They want to break our morale, but they will fail. We are here to stay.”
A second strike Friday evening in Nuseirat targeted the home of a journalist from Al-Quds television, a channel linked to the Islamic Jihad group whose militants also participated in the October 7 attack. According to the channel, journalist Jaber Abu Hadros and six members of his family were killed.
Rami Abu Mosab, a resident of Bureij, said gunfire echoed throughout the camp overnight, followed by heavy airstrikes on Saturday.
As Israeli forces push deeper into Khan Younis and camps in central Gaza, tens of thousands of Palestinians have flocked in recent days to the already overcrowded town of Rafah, at the southern end of Gaza.
Drone footage showed a vast camp of thousands of tents and makeshift huts set up on what was previously empty land on the western outskirts of Rafah, next to UN warehouses. People arrived in Rafah in trucks, carts and on foot. Those who could not find space in the already overcrowded shelters set up their tents on the roadsides covered with mud from the winter rains.
More American weapons for Israel
The State Department said Friday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress he approved a $147.5 million sale for equipment, including fuses, charges and primers, needed for 155 mm shells that Israel had previously purchased.
This is the second time this month that the Biden administration has bypassed Congress to approve an emergency arms sale to Israel. The department cited “the urgency of Israel’s defensive needs” as the reason for the approval.
Blinken made a similar decision on December 9, approving the sale to Israel of nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition, worth more than $106 million.
Both measures come as President Joe Biden’s demand for a nearly $106 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other national security needs remains stalled in Congress, caught in a debate over US immigration policy and border security. Some Democratic lawmakers have talked about making proposed $14.3 billion in U.S. aid to its Mideast ally contingent on concrete steps by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza during the war with Hamas.
Difficulties in delivering aid to Gaza
More than a week after a UN Security Council resolution called for the unhindered delivery of large-scale aid to the besieged Gaza Strip, conditions have only worsened, warned UN agencies.
Humanitarian aid officials say the aid coming into Gaza remains woefully insufficient. The distribution of goods is hampered by long delays at two border crossings, ongoing fighting, Israeli airstrikes, repeated outages of internet and telephone services and a breakdown in law and order that makes it difficult to secure humanitarian convoys, they declared.
Almost the entire population is entirely dependent on external humanitarian aid, said Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. A quarter of the population is starving because too few trucks arrive with food, medicine, fuel and other supplies – sometimes fewer than 100 trucks a day, according to daily U.N. reports.
U.N. observers said operations at Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing were halted for four days this week due to security incidents, such as a drone strike and the seizure of aid by desperate residents from Gaza.
They said the crossing reopened on Friday and a total of 81 aid trucks entered Gaza via Kerem Shalom and the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border – a fraction of the typical pre-war volume of 500 trucks per day.
Israel and Hamas remain apart in ceasefire, hostage deal
Israeli officials, meanwhile, have pledged to bring back more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza, after militants captured more than 240 during the October 7 assault that also killed some 1,200 people, for most civilians.
The army says 168 of its soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began.
The Egyptian mediator proposed a multi-stage plan that would begin with an exchange of hostages for prisoners, accompanied by a temporary ceasefire – modeled on an exchange during a week-long truce in november.
In a later phase, negotiations would begin on the formation of a transitional Palestinian government composed of experts who would rule both Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel and Hamas remain far apart on the terms of a ceasefire and future exchanges.
“We have made it clear that a complete ceasefire is the first step,” Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Beirut, said Saturday. It’s a stance that appears to derail the Egyptian plan, although Hamdan also said discussions were continuing.
“There are also ideas that we received from our brothers in Qatar, and we have not yet given a definitive answer,” he said. “This may take some time. We want to discuss the details, because the idea put forward today could evolve in different ways and might not be discussed again at all.”
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