Skip to main content

US pushes for truce and hostage deal as Gaza war grinds on

Palestinians fleeing the Al-Shifa hospital head further south in the war-torn territory
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

The US top diplomat said Thursday "gaps are narrowing" in talks for a ceasefire in Gaza, and a deal to free hostages held by militants in the devastated coastal territory.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke in Cairo after Israel said its spy chief would head back Friday to Doha for more truce talks with American, Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

They are pushing for a deal to secure a six-week truce in the war between Israel and Hamas, now in its sixth month, that would allow hostages to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, as well as increased aid deliveries to famine-threatened Gaza.

The United States is "continuing to push for an agreement in Doha", Blinken told reporters in Cairo, the latest stop on his sixth tour of the region since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on October 7. On Friday he heads to Israel.

"It's difficult to get there, but I believe it is still possible," Blinken said of the truce deal, adding that "gaps are narrowing".

But he warned that a looming Israeli ground offensive in Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, where around 1.5 million people are hemmed in by the Egyptian border, would be "a mistake".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint press conference with Egypt's foreign minister

"There is no place for the civilians amassed in Rafah to get out of harm's way," said Blinken. "There is a better way to deal with the ongoing threat posed by Hamas."

Earlier he called for an "immediate" ceasefire in Gaza -- in a first for the United States which has previously vetoed UN Security Council resolutions using that phrasing.

Washington, Israel's top ally, has now circulated a draft resolution, seen by AFP, stressing "the need for an immediate and durable ceasefire" to protect civilians and allow aid into the territory.

A vote on the Security Council resolution is expected Friday, Washington said.

However, Israeli bombardment of Gaza has continued with at least 70 people killed overnight, pushing the overall toll close to 32,000, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

- Children 'starving to death' -

Food crisis in governorates of the Gaza Strip

Al-Shifa, Gaza's biggest hospital, has emerged as a major flashpoint after Israel launched a days-long raid on Monday that it said had killed more than 140 fighters by Thursday.

Israel said militants were hiding out at the vast hospital complex and civilians had not been harmed. Hamas said the ongoing attack on an area crowded with patients and people seeking refuge was a crime.

AFP images showed streams of people fleeing south from the hospital along Gaza's coast.

A 60-year-old patient who gave his name as Younis said he had been forced outside without clothes, blindfolded and interrogated before being freed.

The soldiers "beat all the young men and arrested them", Younis told AFP.

Contacted by AFP about mistreatment of young men at Al-Shifa, the Israeli military said it was working "to identify unusual cases that deviate from what is expected of IDF (army) soldiers".

The bloodiest-ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas's attacks resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Smoke rises over Gaza after Israeli bombardments of the warn-torn territory

Militants also seized about 250 hostages. Israel believes 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 who are presumed dead.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel has relentlessly pounded Gaza where at least 31,988 people, most of them women and children, have been killed, the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory says.

Gaza's civilian infrastructure has largely collapsed in the face of Israel's onslaught and UN agencies are warning that the territory's 2.4 million people are on the brink of famine.

A UN panel of independent experts said Thursday that children in Gaza were "starving to death".

"They are cut off from food, even crumbs are not easy to find," said the panel that oversees compliance with the UN child rights convention.

- 'Strong message' -

Israelis attend a mass prayer calling for the release of hostages held in Gaza

In Qatar, mediators were still trying to thrash out a ceasefire deal even as a Hamas official said Israel's response to the group's latest proposal had been "largely negative".

The head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, was to travel Friday to Doha to meet CIA chief William Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Egypt's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel for further truce talks.

The US and Israel are also engaged in a diplomatic tug-of-war over Rafah, the last part of the territory still largely untouched by Israeli ground troops.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled to the southern city to escape fighting elsewhere, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted a ground incursion is the only way to root out Hamas.

Palestinian women grieve over the body of one of four men killed in an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank

Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, warned that Israel's war had "dragged the entire region to the point of explosion... and everyone will pay the price for this Israeli recklessness".

Tensions have also flared in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli troops and settlers have killed more than 440 Palestinians since the Gaza war began, according to Palestinian officials.

The Israeli military killed four Palestinians during a pre-dawn raid on a refugee camp near Tulkarem, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government announced it would donate $40 million to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has been central to aid operations in Gaza.

Many of Israel's allies suspended funding for the agency after Israel accused 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff of taking part in the October 7 attack.

Although several have since resumed their contributions, US lawmakers on Thursday moved toward barring further funds to the agency.