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US says truce talks on, after Gaza aid worker death outcry

Six months of bloodshed have left much of the Gaza Strip in ruins -- a boy clears rubble in Rafah, where around 1.5 million people are sheltering
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

American and Israeli negotiators are expected in Cairo over the weekend for a renewed push to reach a ceasefire-hostage deal in a war that reaches the half-year mark on Sunday.

The attempt comes after Israel made a rare admission of wrongdoing during its war against Hamas militants in Gaza. The military said it was firing two officers for the killing of seven aid workers -- most of them Westerners -- in the territory where humanitarians say famine is imminent.

Israel's admission, however, did not quell calls for an independent probe.

The killing of the workers from US-based World Central Kitchen (WCK) on April 1 led to a tense phone call between United States President Joe Biden and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden urged an "immediate ceasefire" and for the first time hinted at conditioning American support for Israel on curtailing the killing of civilians and improving humanitarian conditions.

A makeshift tent with the World Central Kitchen logo in Rafah -- the group suspended operations in Gaza after an Israeli strike killed seven of its staff

The bloodiest-ever Gaza war began on October 7 with an unprecedented attack from Gaza by Hamas militants resulting in the death of 1,170 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Palestinian militants also took around 250 Israeli and foreign hostages, about 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 34 the army says are dead.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has relentlessly bombarded the territory by air, land and sea, killing at least 33,091 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

- 'Troubling' reports of AI -

Israel's army on Friday rejected accusations, made in an independent Israeli-Palestinian magazine +972, that it has used artificial intelligence to identify targets in Gaza.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the reports "deeply troubling".

Fears that the war could spread intensified after Iran promised to hit back for the killing of seven of its Revolutionary Guards in an air strike Monday on the consular annex of its embassy in Damascus.

Ahead of the weekend talks, Biden wrote to the leaders of Egypt and Qatar urging them to secure commitments from Hamas to "agree to and abide by a deal", a senior administration official told AFP.

The Gaza Strip and Israel

Stop-start talks have made no headway since a week-long truce in November saw the exchange of some hostages for Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel.

The White House confirmed negotiations would occur this weekend in Cairo, but would not comment on US media reports that CIA Director Bill Burns would attend along with Israeli spy chief David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Egypt's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

Biden's Thursday call with Netanyahu included discussions on "empowering his negotiators" to reach a deal, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The United States blames the lack of a deal on Hamas's refusal to release sick and other vulnerable hostages.

Biden is under pressure over the billions of dollars in US military aid to Israel which, so far, Washington has not leveraged despite increasingly critical words about Israel's conduct in the war.

Charities have accused Israel of blocking aid, but Israel has defended its efforts and blamed shortages on groups' inability to distribute aid once it gets in.

None of the 2.4 million people in Gaza have enough to eat

The Israeli military announced it was firing two officers after finding a series of errors led to the drone strikes that killed the WCK workers as they drove south after supervising the unloading of food aid that arrived on a new sea corridor from Cyprus.

WCK said its operations in Gaza remain suspended after the attack, while other global aid groups said relief work has become almost impossible in Gaza.

- 'Criminal' -

The army said a commander "mistakenly assumed" Hamas had seized control of the aid vehicles, which were moving at night.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Saturday that her country had "not yet received sufficient information" from Israel about the death of Lalzawmi "Zomi" Frankcom and the other aid workers killed.

"It cannot be brushed aside and it cannot be covered over," Wong said.

WCK said Israel "cannot credibly investigate its own failure in Gaza" and said its staff were attacked despite having "followed all proper communications procedures".

Britain called for "utmost transparency" and a "wholly independent review", while Poland sought a "criminal" probe.

Annual Quds Day rallies in support of the Palestinians took place in Iran, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain

Hours after Biden and Netanyahu spoke, Israel announced it would allow "temporary" aid deliveries through the Israeli port of Ashdod and the Erez border crossing.

Germany and the European Commission said the steps should be implemented quickly.

United Nations chief Guterres, however, called for a "paradigm shift" rather than "scattered measures".

- 'Dying from hunger' -

Mahmud Bassal, spokesman for Gaza's Civil Defence agency, told AFP on Saturday that whatever aid is reaching Gaza is "absolutely not sufficient" for its 2.4 million people, with basic necessities "extremely scarce" particularly in northern Gaza.

"Children are dying from hunger" there, he said.

Around 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering in the territory's far south, in Rafah.

"We are ordinary citizens and human beings," Siham Achur, 50, said in the tent where her family now stays after their home was destroyed. "Why did they bomb our house?" she asked.

They had lived there, to the north in Khan Yunis city, for 30 years, Achur said, but now all its memories "have become dust".

On Saturday Israel's military said fighting has continued in al-Amal district of Khan Yunis.

In Iran on Friday, thousands of people chanted against Israel and the United States at the funeral for the seven Guard Corps members, including a leading general, killed in the embassy strike.

Iran's leaders have vowed retaliation, the latest being army chief Mohammad Bagheri on Saturday.

Hassan Nasrallah, who heads the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah movement, called the consulate strike a "turning point".

Hezbollah and Israeli forces have regularly exchanged deadly cross-border fire since the Gaza war began, including on Friday with Hezbollah and an allied group Amal reporting several deaths.

The Israeli army said it bombed a "military complex" used by Amal and targeted several regions of southern Lebanon.

burs-it/srm