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The Latest | Netanyahu remains set on Rafah ground invasion despite US misgivings

Mar 19, 2024, 3:15 AM | Updated: Mar 20, 2024, 8:36 am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he remains determined to carry out a Rafah ground offensive, despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s misgivings.

Earlier, Qatari officials said they were “cautiously optimistic” after talks with Israel’s intelligence chief in Doha aimed at trying to reach a cease-fire, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said Tuesday at a news conference, stressing that an Israeli ground operation in Rafah would set back any talks.

Meanwhile, incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa laid out wide-ranging plans for a revitalized Palestinian Authority and an independent trust fund to oversee Gaza’s reconstruction in a mission statement acquired Tuesday by The Associated Press. But the plans face major obstacles, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to any return of the PA to Gaza.

Fighting in the enclave has left at least 31,819 Palestinians dead, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead. A United Nations food agency warned that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in the surprise Oct. 7 attack out of Gaza that triggered the war, and and abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

Currently:

— Incoming Palestinian prime minister lays out plans for reform but faces major obstacles.

— Israelis evacuated from the Lebanese border wonder if they’ll ever return.

— Netanyahu agrees to send Israeli officials to Washington to discuss a prospective Rafah operation.

— Israel urges a top United Nations court to reject South Africa’s request for more emergency orders in a genocide case.

— Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Here’s the latest:

US AND ISRAEL DEFENSE LEADERS TO MEET NEXT WEEK IN WASHINGTON, OFFICIAL SAYS

WASHINGTON — Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin next week in Washington, a U.S. defense official confirmed Tuesday.

The official, who spoke under condition of anonymity to provide details not yet made public, said Austin and Gallant plan to discuss securing the release of Hamas-held hostages, humanitarian aid to Gaza and protecting those in Rafah. Over a million displaced people have sought shelter in the southern Gaza city, where Israel has said it plans to stage a ground offensive.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed.

SURGEON SAYS ISRAELI MILITARY OFFENSIVE IN RAFAH WOULD DEBILITATE GAZA HOSPITALS

UNITED NATIONS – A British surgeon who has been going to Gaza for 15 years is warning that an Israeli military offensive in Rafah will be “apocalyptic” in terms of deaths because there is nowhere safe for the 1.3 million displaced people in the southern city to go.

Professor Nick Maynard, a cancer surgeon who has taught and carried out surgery in Gaza, most recently in January, told a U.N. press conference Tuesday that a cease-fire is urgent because the few hospitals, with a total of 200 beds, can’t cope with the current violence — and “it will be inevitably worse if there is an invasion of Rafah.”

Dr. Zaher Sahlouf, a critical care specialist and president of the humanitarian NGO MedGlobal who was in Gaza in late January, stressed that “there is no place for this population to leave.”

“That means if there is any offensive, they’re going to have a bloodbath, they’re going to have massacres after massacres,” he said.

Sahlouf said with the deterioration and collapse of the health system, pregnant women will die from bleeding, babies will die from lack of care, and patients with diarrhea will die from dehydration.

He pointed to some estimates that 250,000 people will die directly and indirectly if the Israel-Hamas war escalates, “and that is a biblical number.”

“We hope that it will not happen,” he said.

Dr. Thaer Ahmad, a Palestinian-American emergency medicine physician from Christ Medical Center outside Chicago who was also in Gaza in late January as part of a U.N. World Health Organization medical team, said hospitals have been targeted and “the health care system has essentially collapsed.”

The three doctors and Dr. Amber Alayyan, a Texas pediatrician who heads Doctors Without Borders’ Palestinian medical program, are heading to Washington to meet U.S. government officials and members of Congress.

“We need the bombs to stop dropping, hopefully through a cease-fire,” Ahmad said, and the “humanitarian catastrophe” that’s taking place to end.

UN SAYS ISRAEL FACILITATED LESS THAN HALF OF ITS PLANNED AID MISSIONS TO NORTHERN GAZA THIS MONTH

UNITED NATIONS – U.N. humanitarian officials report that during the first half of March, Israeli authorities facilitated less than half of its planned humanitarian aid missions to northern Gaza, where a new report says famine is imminent.

U.N. deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters Tuesday that only 11 of 24 aid convoys the U.N. wanted to send took place, with the rest either denied or postponed.

He said day-to-day approvals from Israeli authorities are required for aid deliveries, and “truck convoys are frequently turned back, even after long waits at the Wadi Gaza checkpoint.” Convoys also run the risk of looting by desperately hungry people, he said.

The report issued Monday by the international community’s authority on determining the severity of hunger crises said 70% of people in northern Gaza are experiencing catastrophic hunger and warned that escalation of the war could push half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population to the brink of starvation.

Haq said the only way to prevent looting and starvation is to ensure that adequate food and other assistance can be delivered on a regular and reliable basis.

The U.N. World Food Program estimates “that simply addressing basic food needs will require at least 300 trucks to enter Gaza every day and distribute food, especially in the north,” he said.

The U.N. humanitarian office has repeatedly called for the Israeli military “to guarantee safe, sustained and unhindered access across Gaza — and to open up all possible entry points into Gaza,” Haq said.

U.N. officials have also repeatedly stressed that the only way to deliver aid on a large scale, which is required to avert imminent famine, is by road, the U.N. spokesperson stressed.

ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER POTENTIALLY WILL VISIT WASHINGTON, US OFFICIAL SAYS

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Israeli officials are working to arrange a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to Washington, according to a U.S. official.

Details of a potential visit are still being worked out, and it’s unclear if the visit would occur in conjunction with or separate from U.S.-Israeli talks on a prospective Israeli military operation in Rafah, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment and requested anonymity.

It would be Gallant’s first visit to Washington since Hamas launched the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war.

President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in a phone call on Monday to hold a meeting between U.S. and Israeli officials in Washington to discuss the U.S. administration’s concerns about Israel’s plans for an operation in the southern Gaza city, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have sheltered, as well as the growing humanitarian crisis in the territory.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the high-level meeting — which is expected to include military, intelligence and humanitarian officials from both countries — will likely take place early next week.

An Israeli Ministry of Defense spokesperson did not return immediately requests for comment regarding Gallant’s possible trip to the U.S.

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Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed.

UNRWA HEAD SAYS ISRAEL BARRED HIS ENTRY INTO GAZA

JERUSALEM — The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees says Israel singled him out by refusing his entry into the Gaza Strip.

Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, UNRWA commissioner Philippe Lazzarini challenged Israel’s claim that he was barred entry due to mistakes on his entry application.

Lazzarini, who has been to Gaza numerous times, says he was the only member of his delegation to be blocked by the Israeli defense body COGAT from entering on Monday.

“I hear COGAT saying that … I did not fill the right form, that was the public explanation, but be re-assured that all members of my delegation were authorized to enter except the commissioner-general,” he said.

Israel has repeatedly accused UNRWA, the largest aid organization in Gaza, of providing cover for Hamas and has also alleged at least 12 UNRWA workers participated in the Oct.7 attack.

COGAT did not respond to a request for comment.

NETANYAHU SAYS NO ALTERNATIVE TO RAFAH GROUND INVASION

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he remains determined to carry out a ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite the misgivings of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Netanyahu told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that he would wait to hear proposals from the U.S. “out of respect to the president” about ways to protect the civilian population in Rafah before ordering the operation.

But he said he does not see any alternative to a ground offensive if Israel is to carry out its goal of destroying the Hamas militant group’s remaining battalions in Rafah.

“We have a debate with the Americans over the need to enter Rafah, not over the need to eliminate Hamas,” Netanyahu said. “We are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion.”

Israel says that Rafah, located on the Egyptian border, is Hamas’ last major stronghold in Gaza. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians, over half of Gaza’s population, are now huddled in Rafah after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the territory.

U.S. officials say they will not support a Rafah operation without the Israelis presenting a credible plan to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians. Israel has yet to present such a plan, according to White House officials.

On Monday, Netanyahu agreed to send a team of Israeli officials to Washington to discuss a prospective Rafah operation with the U.S. The decision took place during Netanyahu and Biden’s first conversation in over a month.

GAZA AID RESTRICTIONS COULD AMOUNT TO WAR CRIME, UN HUMAN RIGHTS CHIEF SAYS

GENEVA —The U.N. human rights chief says Israel’s restrictions on aid entering Gaza and its conduct of war against Hamas could amount to use of starvation as a “method of war, which is a war crime.”

Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, made the comments in a statement from his office a day after the world community’s authority on food crises said famine was “imminent” in war-battered northern Gaza in particular.

“The projected imminent famine in Gaza can and must be prevented,” Türk said. He said law and order was breaking down, and people were forced to “coping strategies” in the midst of a lack of food.

“The extent of Israel’s continued restrictions on the entry of aid into Gaza, together with the manner in which it continues to conduct hostilities, may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war, which is a war crime,” he said.

He said “the clock is ticking” and called on everyone in the international community — “especially those with influence” — to insist that Israel facilitate the unimpeded entry of aid into Gaza to avert the risk of famine.

Türk reiterated his calls for an immediate ceasefire and the unconditional release of Israeli hostages still in Gaza.

In a statement, Israel’s diplomatic mission in Geneva shot back, saying it had “sounded alarm bells for years on Hamas, its diversion of aid, and its use of the Palestinian people as human shields.”

It said that had been “ignored” by Türk, “who seeks once again to blame Israel for the situation and completely absolve the responsibility of the U.N. and Hamas.”

“Despite the rockets, the holding of our hostages, the acts of pure evil on Oct. 7, Israel is committed to facilitating humanitarian aid into Gaza. Israel is at war with Hamas, not the Palestinian people.

“Israel is doing everything it can to flood Gaza with aid, including by land air and sea,” the Israeli mission added. “The U.N. must also step up.”

HOUTHIS CLAIM LATEST ATTACK ON VESSEL IN GULF OF ADEN

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Tuesday claimed attacks targeting a vessel in the Gulf of Aden that had previously been targeted in the Red Sea.

In a prerecorded statement, Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said the rebels targeted the Mado, a liquified natural gas carrier. The vessel was twice targeted by Houthi fire on March 15 and March 17. Both attacks missed the vessel, causing neither damage nor injuries.

The Houthis have attacked ships since November, saying they want to force Israel to end its offensive in the Gaza Strip against Hamas.

The ships targeted by the Houthis, however, largely have had little or no connection to Israel, the U.S. or other nations involved in the war. The rebels have also fired missiles toward Israel, though they have largely fallen short or been intercepted.

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell contributed.

BAD WEATHER DELAYS DEPARTURE OF GAZA-BOUND AID SHIP

NICOSIA, Cyprus — World Central Kitchen says poor weather conditions are delaying the departure of a second ship to deliver some 240 tons of canned foods to Gaza.

The second vessel, called Jennifer, is ready to depart from the Cypriot port of Larnaca with food including beans, carrots, canned tuna, chickpeas, canned corn, parboiled rice, flour, oil and salt.

The U.S. charity said Tuesday the vessel will also carry 265 pounds (120 kg) of fresh dates from the United Arab Emirates which helped open the Cyprus-Gaza maritime route.

The Jennifer has two forklifts and a crane aboard to help offload cargo in future maritime deliveries to the Palestinian territory, as part of an operation the charity has named “Safeena,” meaning boat or vessel in Arabic.

The ship will be accompanied by a crew vessel with eight workers who will operate the forklifts and crane.

WCK said the first load of 200 tons that reached Gaza last week aboard the Open Arms vessel was delivered to the north of the territory with a U.N. World Food Program convoy on Tuesday.

The charity urged Arab countries to join with the UAE and Jordan to deliver food to Gaza by land, sea or air.

SENIOR HAMAS MILITANT AMONG THOSE KILLED IN HOSPITAL RAID, ISRAEL SAYS

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says it has killed more than 50 militants in its ongoing raid at the biggest hospital in the Gaza Strip.

The military said Tuesday that forces have arrested around 180 suspects. It was not possible to confirm whether those killed were combatants.

Israel launched the raid at Shifa Hospital overnight into Monday, saying Hamas had regrouped in the compound and was directing attacks from it. The military said gunmen fired on its forces from inside and that one of its soldiers was killed during the raid.

The army said it killed a senior Hamas militant who was armed and hiding inside the hospital. Palestinian officials said he was a senior commander in the Hamas-run police who was coordinating the protection of convoys.

The army last raided Shifa Hospital in November after claiming that Hamas maintained an elaborate command center within and beneath the facility.

The military revealed a tunnel leading to some underground rooms, as well as weapons it said were found inside the hospital. But the evidence fell short of the earlier claims, and critics accused the army of recklessly endangering the lives of civilians.

Shifa, like most of Gaza’s hospitals, has mostly stopped functioning for lack of electricity, fuel and supplies. Gaza’s Health Ministry said around 30,000 Palestinians were sheltering there at the time of this week’s raid.

GAZA HEALTH MINISTRY RAISES PALESTINIAN DEATH TOLL TO MORE THAN 31,800

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Gaza’s Health Ministry says 93 bodies have been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, bringing the Palestinian death toll from the Israel-Hamas war to 31,819.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its figures but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed. The Israeli military says it has killed over 13,000 militants, without providing evidence.

Israel launched its offensive against Hamas after Palestinian militants stormed across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and dragging around 250 hostages back to Gaza.

Palestinian health officials say at least 15 people were killed in Israeli strikes late Monday in the southern city of Rafah, where Israel has vowed to expand its ground offensive. An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies, from four separate strikes, at a nearby hospital. One of the strikes killed a man, his wife and their three children.

Israel blames the civilian death toll on Hamas because it fights in dense, residential neighborhoods. The military rarely comments on individual strikes, which often kill women and children.

QATARI OFFICIALS ARE ‘CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC’ AFTER CEASE-FIRE TALKS WITH ISRAEL’S INTELLIGENCE CHIEF

DOHA, Qatar — Israel’s intelligence chief has left Doha after talks aimed at trying to reach a cease-fire, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said Tuesday at a news conference, adding that Qatari officials were “cautiously optimistic” about the negotiations.

Al-Ansari said Mossad chief David Barnea had left Qatar already. He said technical negotiations between Israel and Hamas were ongoing, with Qatar carrying messages between the parties.

“I don’t think we’re at a moment now where we can say that we are close to a deal,” al-Ansari said. “It’s still too early to announce any successes.”

He stressed that any Israeli ground operation in Rafah would be a “catastrophe” and could set back any talks.

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Associated Press writer Lujain Jo contributed.

INCOMING PALESTINIAN PRIME MINISTER LAYS OUT HIS PLANS FOR GOVERNMENTAL REFORM

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The incoming Palestinian prime minister says he will appoint a technocratic government and establish an independent trust fund to oversee Gaza’s reconstruction.

In a mission statement acquired Tuesday by The Associated Press, Mohammad Mustafa laid out wide-ranging plans for the kind of revitalized Palestinian Authority called for by the United States as part of its postwar vision for resolving the conflict. But the Palestinian Authority has no power in Gaza, from which Hamas drove its forces in 2007, and only limited authority in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

In his mission statement, Mustafa said he would appoint a “non-partisan, technocratic government that can gain both the trust of our people and the support of the international community.” He promised wide-ranging reforms of PA institutions and a “zero tolerance” policy toward corruption and said he would seek to reunify the territories and create an “independent, competent and transparent agency for Gaza’s recovery and reconstruction and an internationally managed trust fund to raise, manage and disburse the required funds.”

The vision statement made no mention of Hamas, which won a landslide victory the last time Palestinians held national elections, in 2006, and which polls indicate still has significant support.

Mustafa said the PA aims to hold presidential and parliamentary elections, but he did not give a timetable and said it would depend on “realities on the ground” in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war that the Palestinians want for their future state.

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This story was first published on March 20, 2024. It was updated later on March 20, 2024 to correct the name of the president of the humanitarian NGO MedGlobal. He is Dr. Zaher Sahloul, not Dr. Zaher Sahlouf.

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The Latest | Netanyahu remains set on Rafah ground invasion despite US misgivings