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Fresh Israeli claims against UN aid agency as US ups pressure

A wounded Palestinian, Nidal al-Gharib, in Rafah -- his wife and daughter were killed
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Israel and the main Palestinian aid agency traded accusations Monday of "terrorism" and torture, after the United States stepped up pressure for a halt in fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.

While mediators in Cairo persisted with efforts toward a Gaza truce, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) came under renewed attack from Israel, whose military accused it of employing "over 450 terrorists" belonging to groups including Hamas.

UNRWA is at the centre of efforts to provide humanitarian relief in Gaza, where aid groups warn of looming famine after nearly five months of war between Israel and the Islamist group.

Seen from southern Israel, Israeli armoured personnel carriers leave Gaza

Israel previously accused about a dozen UNRWA employees of involvement in the October 7 Hamas attack that began the war.

That attack, in southern Israel, resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, an AFP tally of official figures shows.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed 30,534 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.

Phillipe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, has said that Israel provided no evidence against his former employees.

On Monday his agency, in a statement to AFP, said some UNRWA staff alleged "they were forced to confessions under torture and ill-treatment" while being asked about the October 7 attack.

Lazzarini also told the UN General Assembly on Monday that dismantling the UNRWA would sacrifice a "generation of children, sowing the seeds of hatred, resentment and future conflict".

US Vice President Kamala Harris expressed "deep concern" over the situation in Gaza during talks Monday with Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz at the White House, her office said.

Harris "expressed her deep concern about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza" and urged Israel to let in more aid, while calling on Palestinian militant group Hamas to "accept the terms on the table" for a ceasefire, her office said.

- Raped 'then killed' -

Qatari and Egyptian mediators were meeting with United States and Hamas envoys -- but no Israeli delegates so far -- in Cairo for a second day of talks. They are aiming for a halt in fighting before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts early next week.

Taking an unusually sharp tone, US Vice President Kamala Harris demanded ally Israel increase aid to Gaza

According to Israeli media reports, Israel's government has refused to send its delegation to Cairo, stating they had not been given a list of living hostages by Hamas.

However, Bassem Naim, a senior Hamas leader, told AFP from Cairo that details on the status of the prisoners "were not mentioned in any documents or proposals circulated during the negotiation process".

The talks on securing a new ceasefire are set to continue Tuesday, an Egyptian TV broadcaster known for its links to Cairo's government said late Monday.

The plan under discussion is for a six-week truce, the exchange of dozens of remaining hostages for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and for more aid to enter Gaza.

Israel has said it believes 130 of the original 250 captives taken by Hamas during their attack remain in Gaza, but that 31 have been killed.

An Israeli army helicopter fires flares above the Gaza Strip

A UN report on Monday said there are "reasonable grounds to believe" rapes were committed during Hamas's attack and that hostages subsequently taken to Gaza have also been raped.

"In most of these incidents, victims first subjected to rape were then killed, and at least two incidents relate to the rape of women's corpses," the report said.

Shortly before the report's release, Israel said it was calling in its UN ambassador over what it said was an attempt by the body to "silence" information of sexual violence by Hamas.

The spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denied trying to suppress the report, saying it "is being presented publicly today".

Israeli Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz attends a memorial for the 1,400 victims killed during the October 7 attack by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip

Harris -- whose country provides billions of dollars in military aid to Israel -- called for the truce deal to be accepted and criticised Israel in unusually strong language over insufficient aid deliveries into Gaza.

Harris said Israel "must open new border crossings" and "must not impose any unnecessary restrictions" on aid delivery.

Belgium on Monday sent a military transport plane to join an international operation to airdrop aid into Gaza also involving the United States, France and Jordan, officials said.

- 'We want to eat' -

US President Joe Biden faces acute pressure in an election year over his support for Israel, as Gaza's civilian death toll continues to rise.

Soldiers stand by a Belgian military transport aircraft loaded with humanitarian aid to be dropped over Gaza, prior to its takeoff from Melsbroek, Belgium

Itamar Ben Gvir, Netanyahu's national security minister, told members of his Jewish Power political party that Hamas was "deliberately delaying the talks".

He called for an end to the negotiations and movement instead to a "more powerful combat phase".

Gaza's health ministry on Monday said bombardments and combat killed 124 more people within 24 hours.

Witnesses reported clashes in Gaza City's Zeitun neighbourhood and the main southern city of Khan Yunis, which has seen heavy fighting.

Seen from southern Israel, smoke billows inside Gaza as Israeli troops gather at the border

Khan Yunis residents returned to find decomposing bodies lying in streets where homes and shops had been torn apart.

"We want to eat and live. Take a look at our homes. How am I to blame, a single, unarmed person without any income in this impoverished country?" said Nader Abu Shanab, pointing to the rubble with blackened hands.

The Gaza war has sparked violence across the region, including near-daily exchanges of fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.

- Indians wounded -

On Monday, a foreign worker in northern Israel was killed and seven Indian workers were wounded in a missile strike near the Lebanese border, Israeli medics said.

Later, Hezbollah said three paramedics affiliated with the group were killed in an Israeli strike.

A child in a makeshift camp for displaced Palestinians in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who since November have fired drones and missiles at numerous ships in the Red Sea area vital for world trade, claimed responsibility for another strike.

Their claim came after marine security firm Ambrey reported a Liberian-flagged vessel was targeted and reportedly struck off Yemen.

United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk cited Lebanon and Yemen as places where the Gaza war is having wider effect, expressing concern that "in this powder keg, any spark could lead to a much broader conflagration".