Israel prepares return to ceasefire talks; UN says Gaza hunger crisis worsens

Israel's assault has forced many inhabitants from their homes, leaving much of Gaza in rubble

REUTERS March 17, 2024
Smoke rises following an Israeli strike as Palestinians fleeing north Gaza due to Israel’s military offensive move southward, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the central Gaza Strip, March 15, 2024. PHOTO: REUTERS


The main UN aid agency operating in Gaza said on Saturday that acute malnutrition was accelerating in the north of the Palestinian enclave as Israel prepared to send a delegation to Qatar for new ceasefire talks on a hostage deal with Hamas.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) said one in three children under the age of two in northern Gaza is now acutely malnourished, putting more pressure on Israel over the looming famine.

On Friday, Israel said it would send a delegation to Qatar for more talks with mediators after its enemy Hamas presented a new proposal for a ceasefire with an exchange of hostages and prisoners.

The delegation will be led by the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea, a source familiar with the talks said, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking to convene his security cabinet to discuss the proposal before the talks start. Netanyahu's office has said the latest Hamas offer was still based on "unrealistic demands."

Efforts failed to secure a temporary ceasefire before Islam's holy month of Ramadan started a week ago, and Israel said on Friday it planned a new offensive against an alleged Hamas stronghold in Rafah, the last relatively safe city in Gaza after five months of war.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, starting a visit to the region, voiced concern about an assault on Rafah, saying there was a danger it would result "in many terrible civilian casualties".

On Friday, Netanyahu's office said he had approved an attack plan on Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's 2.3 million residents are sheltering, and that the civilian population would be evacuated. It gave no time frame and there was no sign of imminent preparations on the ground.

The Hamas offer, reviewed by Reuters, foresees dozens of Israeli hostages freed in return for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails during a weeks-long ceasefire that would let more aid into Gaza. Hamas also called for talks in a later stage on ending the war, but Israel has said it is only willing to negotiate a temporary truce.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan told Al Jazeera the group's proposal is so realistic that "no one can object to it" and claimed mediators had reacted positively.

He said it consists of two stages, with a complete "cessation of aggression" at the start of the second one - something Israel has rejected, vowing to resume its goal of destroying Hamas once any truce expires.

Read Unloading from 1st aid ship arrived on Gaza's shores completed

Families of Israeli hostages and their supporters again gathered in Tel Aviv, urging a deal for their release.

At the same time, anti-government protesters, estimated by Israeli media at a few thousand, called for new elections and blocked streets in Tel Aviv.

Humanitarian crisis

Israel's brutal assault, which has killed more than 31,500 Gazans, came in response to Hamas' cross-border raid into Israel on October 7, 2023. The attack claimed the lives of around 1,200 Israeli settlers and soldiers. Hamas also took 253 people captive, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel's ground and air campaign has killed mostly women and children, injuring thousands more.

The assault has forced many inhabitants from their homes, leaving much of Gaza in rubble and triggering a hunger crisis.

"Children's malnutrition is spreading fast and reaching unprecedented levels in Gaza," UNRWA said in a social media post. Hospitals in Gaza have reported some children dying of malnutrition and dehydration.

Later, Palestinian media outlets said aid trucks had reached the northern Gaza areas of Jabalia, Beit Hanoun, and Beit Lahiya for the first time in four months. The 13 trucks carrying flour arrived at a UNWRA facility, according to reports.

Western countries have called on Israel to do more to allow in aid, with the UN saying it faced "overwhelming obstacles" including crossing closures, onerous vetting, and unrest inside Gaza.

Israel says it puts no limit on humanitarian aid for Gaza and blames slow aid delivery on a lack of capacity or inefficiency among UN agencies.

The first sea shipment of aid into Gaza by the World Central Kitchen, using a new route via Cyprus, arrived on Friday.

A second cargo of food aid was ready to depart, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said, while the US and Jordan carried out an airdrop of humanitarian aid.

Queen Rania of Jordan told CNN the airdrops were "literally just drops in the ocean of unmet needs" and accused Israel of "cutting off everything that is required to sustain a human life: food, fuel, medicine, water."


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