US drones fly over Gaza as Israel rebuffs ceasefire call
UN, WHO chiefs 'horrified' by Israeli strike on ambulance convoy
November 4, 2023 08:45 AM
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken left Israel largely empty-handed Friday after urging its leaders to do more to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza during their war against Hamas. The US also confirmed that it is flying drone over Gaza Strip but they are not combat unmanned aerial vehicles.
On Saturday, he is due to hold talks in neighbouring Jordan with the foreign ministers of five Arab countries who have expressed mounting concern and anger over the civilian death toll from the conflict, now entering its fifth week.
After meeting Israeli 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.
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.
Witnesses said the strike hit Gaza's coastal road, which the Israeli military has previously told civilians to take to travel south.
- 'Utterly shocked' -
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was "utterly shocked" by a deadly Israeli strike on an ambulance near Gaza's largest hospital.
An AFP journalist saw multiple bodies beside the damaged ambulance outside Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital, which in addition to wounded people is overcrowded with civilians seeking shelter from Israeli bombing. The health ministry said 13 people were killed.
The Hamas government said Israeli forces hit "a convoy of ambulances which was transporting the wounded" from Gaza City towards the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
The Israeli military said it had launched an air strike on "an ambulance that was identified by forces as being used by a Hamas terrorist cell in close proximity to their position in the battle zone".
Egypt's health ministry said just 17 wounded Palestinians were evacuated for treatment in Egyptian hospitals Friday instead of the 28 originally planned because of the "events" at Al-Shifa.
The leader of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, blamed the United States for the conflict as he broke 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, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Hezbollah "should not try to take advantage of the ongoing conflict".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hezbollah it would "pay an unimaginable price" for any misstep.
The fighting was triggered by Hamas's bloody raids on October 7, which Israeli officials say killed more than 1,400 people, mainly civilians.
The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says more than 9,227 people have died in Israeli bombardments, mostly women and children.
- Workers expelled -
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.
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.
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".
UN chief 'horrified' by Israeli strike on ambulance convoy
The head of the United Nations was "horrified" by a strike by Israeli forces on a convoy of ambulances in Gaza on Friday, he said in a statement, adding that the conflict "must stop."
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society has said one of its ambulances was struck "by a missile fired by the Israeli forces" just feet from the entrance to the hospital in Gaza City, in an attack it says killed 15 people and wounded more than 60 others.
"I am horrified by the reported attack in Gaza on an ambulance convoy outside Al Shifa hospital. The images of bodies strewn on the street outside the hospital are harrowing," Antonio Guterres said in the statement.
An AFP journalist at the scene of Friday's attack saw multiple bodies beside the damaged ambulance outside the hospital, which is overcrowded with civilians seeking shelter from Israeli bombing as well as those wounded.
Israel's military said it had launched an air strike on "an ambulance that was identified by forces as being used by a Hamas terrorist cell in close proximity to their position in the battle zone."
Insisting he did "not forget the terror attacks committed in Israel by Hamas," the UN chief added that "for nearly one month, civilians in Gaza, including children and women, have been besieged, denied aid, killed, and bombed out of their homes.
"This must stop," he continued.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza was "horrific," he said.
There is "not nearly enough" food, water and medicine, while fuel to power hospitals and water plants was running out, he warned.
UN shelters in Gaza "are at nearly four times their full capacity and are being hit in bombardments," Guterres continued.
"Morgues are overflowing. Shops are empty. The sanitation situation is abysmal. We are seeing an increase in diseases and respiratory illnesses, especially among children. An entire population is traumatized. Nowhere is safe," he said.
Guterres called again for a ceasefire, and for hostages taken by Hamas in their initial attack on October 7 to be freed.
The Palestinian militant group killed more than 1,400 people in that attack, mainly civilians, Israeli officials say.
Israel has retaliated by bombarding the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas-run health ministry says more than 9,200 people have died, mostly women and children.
Guterres called again for all sides to respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians. "All those with influence must exert it to ensure respect for the rules of war, end the suffering and avoid a spillover of the conflict that could engulf the whole region," he said.
US flying drones over Gaza
The United States is flying unarmed drones over Gaza to aid efforts to free the more than 240 hostages seized by the Hamas militant group when it attacked Israel, the Pentagon said Friday.
"In support of hostage recovery efforts, the US is conducting unarmed UAV flights over Gaza, as well as providing advice and assistance to support our Israeli partner as they work on their hostage recovery efforts," Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement.
"These UAV flights began after the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel," Ryder said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.
Hamas fighters stormed out of Gaza that day and killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, according to Israel officials.
The Israeli military has responded with a withering air, land and naval assault on Gaza which the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed more than 9,000 people, also mostly civilians.
The United States rushed military assistance to Israel following the attack and also bolstered its forces in the region with additional warships, planes air defenses and troops.
American forces in Iraq and Syria have been hit by a spike in rocket and drone attacks linked to the Israel-Hamas war this month, with the Pentagon blaming Iran-backed groups for the violence.