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Israeli strikes kill over 70 in Gaza, and West Bank shooters kill an Israeli

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JERUSALEM -

Israeli strikes have killed at least 71 people in southern and central Gaza during roughly the past 24 hours, the territory's health officials said Thursday.

And tensions are rising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where three gunmen opened fire Thursday morning on a road near a checkpoint, killing one Israeli and wounding at least five, police said. Two of the attackers were killed. A third was found later and detained.

European diplomats are stepping up calls for a ceasefire, as alarm grows over the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

In a small sign of progress amid ongoing international efforts to broker a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, said Thursday that Israel “will expand the authority” of its hostage negotiators. But the prospect of an Israeli offensive into southernmost Gaza city of Rafah still

Israel's war in Gaza has driven some 80 per cent of the territory's 2.3 million people from their homes. Most heeded Israeli orders to flee south and around 1.5 million are packed into Rafah near the border with Egypt.

Gaza’s Health Ministry estimates more than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed.

The war began when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostage. About a fourth of some 130 captives still being held are believed to be dead. Israel has laid waste to much of the Palestinian territory in response.

Currently:

— Suspected Houthi rebel missile sets cargo ship ablaze. Israel intercepts separate attack near Eilat

— British couple waits for the return of a relative held by Hamas

— Iran accuses Israel of a sabotage attack after explosions strike a natural gas pipeline

— United Airlines says it will restart flights to Israel in March

— Why isn't desperately needed aid reaching Palestinians in Gaza?

— Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.

Here's the latest:

Head of medical charity says Israel is 'blatantly' disregarding civilian lives in Gaza

UNITED NATIONS — The head of the aid organization Doctors Without Borders is accusing Israeli forces of “blatantly” disregarding civilian lives and collectively punishing Palestinians for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks — and accused the United States of blocking the UN Security Council from demanding an immediate ceasefire.

Christopher Lockyear, secretary general of the aid group also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, told a Security Council meeting Thursday that for 138 days the organization has seen the humanitarian crisis escalate and “the systematic obliteration of a health system we have supported for decades.”

MSF has also watched patients and colleagues killed and injured, including just two days ago when a building in the city of Khan Younis was struck by an Israeli tank shell and intense gunfire, he said. He said the Israelis had been told the building housed MSF staff and their families. The attack ignited a fire, killing two people and severely burned six others, five of them women and children.

“This situation is the culmination of a war Israel is waging on the entire population of the Gaza Strip — a war of collective punishment, a war without rules, a war at all costs,” Lockyear said.

He called the humanitarian response in Gaza “a convenient illusion” perpetuating the narrative that the war is being waged in line with international laws. Those laws, which he called a basis for providing humanitarian aid, “are now eroded to the point of becoming meaningless.”

He pointed to patients with catastrophic injuries unable to get treatment, surgeons running out of gauze to stop patients’ bleeding, not enough medication, and women giving birth in plastic tents and public buildings.

“Medical teams have added a new acronym to their vocabulary: WCNSF — wounded child, no surviving family,” he said.

Lockyear called it appalling that the U.S. has vetoed three Security Council resolutions demanding a ceasefire, and he strongly criticized its proposed new resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire when “practicable.” The people of Gaza need a ceasefire now, and “anything short of this is gross negligence,” he said.

Independent review of UNRWA will focus on whether UN aid agency did enough to stay neutral

UNITED NATIONS — The head of an independent review of the embattled UN agency for Palestinian refugees says its focus will be on whether it is operating with the required neutrality of all United Nations organizations.

Former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna told reporters after meeting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Thursday that his message to her when he asked her to undertake “this very sensitive and hopefully useful mission” was to find ways and means to see if UNRWA “does everything it can to ensure neutrality.”

Guterres announced on Feb. 5 that Colonna would lead the review which will be conducted by three independent research organizations —- the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini requested an independent review of the agency following Israeli allegations that 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel, which led to the current war. More than 16 countries suspended aid to UNRWA because of the allegations.

Colonna said the review team started work on Feb. 13 and sent letters to Israeli and Palestinian officials several days ago requesting meetings, which she called “absolutely necessary.” She said she also plans to meet as many countries as possible, especially donor nations, including some foreign ministers attending Friday’s UN commemoration of the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Colonna said the independent review group will specifically clarify the mechanisms and structures in place in UNRWA to ensure neutrality, and how they are being implemented in practice.

An interim report to the secretary-general is expected in late March and a final report, which will be made public, in late April, which will include recommendations.

Colonna said the review group will not be cooperating with a separate investigation of the Israeli allegations against UNRWA staff ordered by Guterres which the UN’s internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, is conducting.

Israeli strikes kill at least 23 people in central Gaza, Health Ministry says

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — At least 23 people were killed in Israeli strikes and their bodied taken to a hospital in central Gaza, the territory's Health Ministry said late Thursday.

These casualties raise the approximate death toll to 71 from Israeli bombing during the past 24 hours. The Health Ministry says the number could still rise. The bodies were taken to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, the ministry said.

Earlier strikes had killed at least 48 people in southern and central Gaza overnight, half of them women and children, the ministry said.

UN mideast envoy returns from Gaza with urgent plea for ceasefire

UNITED NATIONS — The UN Mideast envoy is calling for an urgent ceasefire in Gaza and the immediate release of hostages taken on Oct. 7, saying the situation in the embattled territory is “shocking and unsustainable” and warning that it could quickly “spiral out of control in the region.”

Tor Wennesland, who was in Gaza earlier this week, told the UN Security Council via video on Thursday that a possible full-scale Israeli military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought safety, makes a ceasefire and hostage deal even more urgent.

Wennesland said over 2 million of its 2.3 million people face “extreme food insecurity” — meaning extreme hunger — as well as increasing shortages of water, shelter and medicine along with unsanitary conditions.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

“This desperation and scarcity has led to a near total breakdown in law and order,” Wennesland said. “Keeping Gaza on a drip-feed not only deprives a desperate population of life-saving support, it drives even greater chaos that further impedes humanitarian delivery.”

The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process said there must be a clear path toward restoring a single, effective Palestinian government across Gaza and the West Bank, and “a timebound political framework” to end Israel’s occupation and establish a two-state solution.

Wennesland's speech to the Security Council comes just days after United States vetoed a widely supported UN resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. It was the third time Washington vetoed a ceasefire resolution since the war began. The U.S. said the resolution would interfere with negotiations on a deal to free hostages.

50 patients evacuated from besieged Nasser Hospital by W.H.O.

CAIRO — The World Health Organization has evacuated more than 50 patients from the besieged Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, the main medical complex in the southern Gaza Strip, but at least 140 patients are still inside.

Hundreds of staff, patients and others inside the hospital have struggled under heavy fire and dwindling supplies, including food and water. The medical complex was raided by Israeli forces last week, after troops besieged the facility for nearly a week beforehand. The army said it was seeking the remains of hostages taken by Hamas.

Ayadil Saparbekov, WHO Health Emergencies Team Lead in the Palestinian territories, said his agency has so far helped evacuate 51 patients in three missions, relocating them to other medical facilities.

“We still have around 140 patients remaining in the hospital but these figures unfortunately change every hour,” he said, adding that some patients end up succumbing to their wounds while others choose to flee.

Since the conflict erupted, Israeli forces have targeted several hospitals, arguing that Hamas uses them as cover for its fighters.

Israel confirms it has built a road across the centre of Gaza

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military confirms it has built a road crossing the Gaza Strip from east to west.

It says the road, which expanded an already existing corridor, is being used “to move logistics and soldiers.”

It gave no additional details, but Israeli leaders have said that Israel intends to maintain long-term security control over Gaza after the war.

W.H.O. warns that disease in Gaza could kill more people than the war itself

CAIRO — The continuous outbreak of infectious diseases in the Gaza Strip may ultimately cause more deaths among Palestinians than the ongoing Israeli military operations, a senior World Health Organization warned on Thursday.

“Infectious disease is a major concern for us in Gaza,” Richard Brennan, regional emergency director at the U.N. health agency, told reporters in Cairo. “WHO estimates that if we did have severe outbreaks of diarrheal diseases and respiratory infections and so on, there could potentially be more deaths due to disease outbreak than due to trauma.”

So far, WHO has confirmed 200,000 cases of diarrheal diseases, an increase of more than 20 per cent compared to last year, Brennan said.

WHO also confirmed a hepatitis A outbreak with around 8,000 cases, and another 200,000 respiratory infections, he added, blaming the situation on poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water, and overcrowding in areas where displaced civilians have fled the conflict. Some 80 per cent of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes.

“The risk remains for other disease outbreaks. We are certainly not out of the woods at this stage,” Brennan said, stressing his agency’s fear of a potential outbreak of dysentery as doctors are seeing more cases of bloody diarrhea.

Only 13 out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are partially functioning, according to WHO. Gaza’s Health Ministry estimates more than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed.

Israel's ceasefire negotiators are getting expanded authority in hostage release talks

JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister says Israel “will expand the authority” of its hostage negotiators.

The comments by Yoav Gallant signal a small sign of progress in ongoing international efforts to broker a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

Late Wednesday, Benny Gantz, who sits on Israel’s War Cabinet with Gallant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, confirmed that new ceasefire efforts were underway and said there were small hopes for moving forward. But Gantz repeated his stance that Israel will invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah if there isn’t a hostage deal by the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Gallant spoke during a meeting with Brett McGurk, a senior U.S. envoy who is in the region working on cease-fire efforts.

“We will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators,” he said.

At the same time, he said the Israeli army is “preparing the continuation of intense ground operations.”

Israel is seeking the release of the more than 100 hostages Hamas is holding in Gaza. Hamas wants an end to the Israeli offensive, a full withdrawal of Israeli forces and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

An Israeli attack on Rafah would worsen an already 'catastrophic' situation, European ministers say

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Several European foreign ministers expressed on Thursday their concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the suffering of the hostages and “the Israeli government’s plans for a possible ground operation in Rafah.”

In a joint statement, they said an Israeli military action in Rafah ”would worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation and prevent the urgently needed provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance.”

”This requires an immediate humanitarian pause that would lead to a sustainable cease-fire, the unconditional release of all hostages and the provision of humanitarian assistance," said the ministers in the statement, released by Sweden.

The foreign ministers who co-signed the document included those of 26 European countries.

Yemini rebels set a ship ablaze in Gulf of Aden, as Israel intercepts another Houthi attack in Red Sea

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A suspected missile attack by Yemen’s rebels set a ship ablaze in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday as Israel intercepted what appeared to be another Houthi attack near the port city of Eilat on the Red Sea.

The rebels have escalate their assaults over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Thursday's attack in the Gulf of Aden saw two missiles fired, according to the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations centre.

Ship-tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press identified the vessel ablaze as a Palau-flagged cargo ship named Islander. It had been coming from Thailand bound for Egypt and previously sent out messages saying “SYRIAN CREW ON BOARD” to potentially avoid being targeted by the Houthis.

The ship’s Liberian-listed owners could not be immediately reached for comment.

Meanwhile, sirens sounded early Thursday morning over Israel's city of Eilat, followed by videos posted online of what appeared to be an interception in the sky overhead. The Israeli military later said the interception was carried out by its Arrow missile defense system, which intercepts long-range ballistic missiles.

Israel did not identify what the fire was, nor where it came from.

UN trade agency says Suez Canal traffic of container ships drops by two-thirds

GENEVA — A top UN trade body says weekly container-ship traffic through the Suez Canal has plunged by more than two-thirds from peak levels as shipping companies avoid the Red Sea over attacks on shipping by Yemen's Houthi rebels.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development said the traffic has declined by 67 per cent from peak levels while overall traffic — including tanker transits and gas carriers — has fallen by 42 per cent.

UNCTAD also highlighted the impact on trade, especially of African countries such as Djibouti, Kenya and Tanzania, which count on the flow of goods through the canal. It also underscored the environmental fallout as ships reroute southward around Africa.

Jan Hoffmann, head of UNCTAD trade logistics, said the combined effect of the longer distances that ships travel around the Cape of Good Hope and the faster speeds at which they travel to make up lost time have caused “exponentially more” carbon emissions.

UNCTAD said it estimates that higher fuel consumption could result in as much as a 70 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions for a Singapore-Rotterdam round trip, for example.

Attackers open fire on a busy West Bank checkpoint, leaving one dead and at least five wounded

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli police said one Israeli was killed and five wounded after three gunmen opened fire on cars near a checkpoint in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Thursday.

Police said the gunmen took advantage of the traffic jam during the morning rush-hour on the main highway east of Jerusalem, opening fire with automatic weapons at several cars.

Security forces on the scene, including a policeman on his way to work, killed two of the gunmen. The third fled but was soon apprehended by police and detained after being wounded. The police said the gunmen were from the Bethlehem area.

The killed Israeli was a 20-year-old man. Five others were wounded, including a pregnant woman in her 20s who was in critical but stable condition, according to health officials.

There have been a number of shooting attacks against Israeli civilians since the war began in Gaza, including a shooting and car ramming attack in a suburb north of Tel Aviv last month that killed one person and injured 12.

Israel's far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, visited the scene and called for more checkpoints and restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as more weapons for Israeli civilians.

“We are distributing more and more guns, there were some people who criticized me on this policy half a year ago, I think that today everyone understands that guns save lives,” he said.

Hamas in a statement praised the attack as a “natural response” to Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and raids in the West Bank, and called for more attacks until they can achieve a “fully sovereign” Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The militant group did not claim responsibility for the attack.

Tensions are also high ahead of Ramadan, which is expected to start March 10 and which has in the past seen surging violence.

Since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, nearly 400 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The army says it has arrested more than 3,200 Palestinians in nighttime raids in the West Bank, including 1,350 believed to be part of Hamas.  

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