TEL AVIV: Top US diplomat Antony Blinken met Israeli leaders on Friday to call for more to be done to protect Palestinian civilians during the war to destroy Hamas.

After meeting Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken said he had discussed the idea of "humanitarian pauses" to secure the release of hostages and to allow aid to be distributed to Gaza's beleaguered population.

"We believe that each of these efforts would be facilitated by humanitarian pauses, by arrangements on the ground that increase security for civilians and permit the more effective and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance," Blinken told journalists.

And he reiterated Washington's long-standing support for the eventual recognition of a Palestinian state: "Two states for two peoples. Again, that is the only way to ensure lasting security for a Jewish and democratic Israel."

Netanyahu, however, warned that there could be no "temporary truce" in Gaza unless Hamas releases the estimated 241 Israeli and foreign hostages it took during its October 7 attacks.

Both Israel and the United States have previously ruled out a blanket ceasefire, which they say would allow Hamas to regroup and resupply, but US President Joe Biden has backed "temporary, localised" pauses.

Israel, meanwhile, began expelling thousands of Palestinian workers back to Gaza, despite ongoing fighting and air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians in the territory.

Israeli forces have urged Gazans to head south from Gaza City towards the southern end of the territory to escape the worst of the fighting, but the Hamas-run health ministry said that 14 fleeing Palestinians, including women and children, had been killed making this journey.

Health ministry in Gaza says Israel targeted convoy of ambulances leaving Al-Shifa hospital

Witnesses said the strike hit Gaza's coastal road, which the Israeli military has previously told civilians to take to travel south.

In Geneva, the United Nations launched an emergency aid appeal seeking $1.2 billion to help some 2.7 million people facing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

The leader of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, also made a speech -- in his case blaming the United States for the conflict -- as he broke with weeks of silence amid concerns of a broader regional conflagration.

"America is entirely responsible for the ongoing war on Gaza and its people, and Israel is simply a tool of execution," he said in a televised broadcast, accusing Washington of impeding "a ceasefire and the end of the aggression."

Nasrallah warned Israel against attacking Lebanon and said the possibility of "total war is realistic".

In Washington, a National Security Council spokesperson said Hezbollah "should not try to take advantage of the ongoing conflict".

If the war expanded to include Lebanon, the spokesperson said, "the likely devastation for Lebanon and its people would be unimaginable and is avoidable".

Ahead of Blinken's arrival, Israel's military said it had "completed the encirclement" of Gaza's largest city -- signalling a new phase in the nearly month-long conflict.

Fighting was triggered by Hamas's bloody raids on October 7, which Israeli officials say killed more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says more than 9,227 people have died in Israeli bombardments, mostly women and children.

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After the Hamas assault, Israeli forces moved to re-establish security on the border, trapping thousands of Palestinian workers inside Israel.

On Friday, officials began to force them back into Gaza, AFP journalists at the Karem Abu Salem crossing saw.

"Thousands of workers who were blocked in Israel since October 7 have been brought back," the head of Gaza's crossings authority, Hisham Adwan, told AFP.

Workers expelled

Israel had said it would start sending the workers back to Gaza.

"Israel is severing all contact with Gaza. There will be no more Palestinian workers from Gaza," the Israeli security cabinet said on Thursday.

The United Nations Human Rights Office said it was "deeply concerned" about the expulsions.

"They are being sent back, we don't know exactly to where," and whether they "even have a home to go to", spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell told a news conference in Geneva.

Before the war started, some 18,500 Gazans held Israeli work permits, according to Israeli defence officials, but it was not clear how many were in the country on October 7.

New Israeli strikes rocked the Gaza Strip on Friday morning, an AFP correspondent said, and the Gaza health ministry reported at least 15 deaths in Gaza City's Zeitun neighbourhood and seven in Jabalia refugee camp.

The Hamas government has said 195 people were killed in Israeli bombardments on Jabalia earlier this week, with hundreds more missing and wounded, figures AFP could not independently verify.

Before his departure, Blinken said he would seek to ensure that harm to Palestinian civilians is reduced, in a visible shift of tone for the United States, which has promised full support and ramped-up military aid to Israel.

But, beginning his visit with talks with President Isaac Herzog, Blinken reiterated the basis of its support, telling reporters: "Israel has not only the right but the obligation to defend itself ... to make sure that this October 7 never happens again."

Netanyahu said Israel had already had some "very impressive successes" with troops "more than on the outskirts of Gaza City. We are advancing," he said late Thursday at a base near Tel Aviv.

Israel's military describes Gaza City as "the centre of the Hamas terror organisation".

Although many of the city's half-a-million residents fled south following Israel's warning to leave ahead of a ground operation, those who stayed behind have endured weeks of aerial bombardment, dwindling supplies and daily carnage.

'Curse of history'

But yet more mayhem may lie ahead, as the conflict turns to urban and underground warfare -- with Hamas fighting from a tunnel complex believed to span hundreds of kilometres (miles).

The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, insisted Israeli soldiers would go home "in black bags".

"Gaza will be the curse of history for Israel," spokesman Abu Obeida said.

Israel's allies have backed its right to self-defence, but there is growing global concern and anger at how Israel has chosen to prosecute the war.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar expressed concern that Israel's response had gone beyond tackling Hamas in self-defence and now "resembles something more approaching revenge".


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PT Nov 04, 2023 12:08pm
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