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Widening Israeli offensive in southern Gaza worsens dire humanitarian conditions

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The Israeli military hit Rafah in southern Gaza twice overnight, residents said, as United Nations officials warned there are no safe places left in the besieged territory.

The centre of Gaza's second-largest city, Khan Younis, has also seen fighting amid Israel's widening air and ground offensive in the southern part of the territory that has displaced tens of thousands more Palestinians and worsened dire humanitarian conditions.

Distribution of food, water and medicine have been prevented outside a sliver of southern Gaza, and new military evacuation orders are squeezing people into ever-smaller areas.

The United Nations said 1.87 million people -- more than 80 per cent of Gaza's population -- have been driven from their homes since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, triggered by the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel.

Around 1,200 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack. The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said the death toll in the territory has surpassed 16,200, with more than 42,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but said 70 per cent of the dead were women and children.

Here's what's happening in the war:

U.S. SAYS ISRAEL NEEDS TO DO MORE TO PROTECT PALESTINIAN CIVILIANS

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says there is "a gap" between what Israel pledged to do to protect Palestinian civilians and the results so far since it began intensive military operations against Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip.

Blinken said Thursday that it remains "imperative" that Israel do more to ensure civilians are not killed or wounded as it seeks to eradicate Hamas from Gaza. He recalled that Israeli officials had assured him on a visit to Israel last week that they would take extra precautions to protect civilian life. He said he raised the issue again on Thursday.

"As we stand here almost a week into this campaign in the south and after the end of the humanitarian pause, it is imperative, it remains imperative, that Israel put a premium on civilian protection," Blinken told reporters at a joint news conference in Washington with visiting British Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

"And there does remain a gap between exactly what I said when I was there between the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we're seeing on the ground," he said.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Blinken spoke earlier Thursday with Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer to say the U.S. is pleased with new deliveries of fuel to Gaza but still wants to see those and other assistance deliveries increased. At the same time, Blinken told Dermer that civilian casualties remain too high and that Israel must step up its efforts to reduce them, according to the official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the private diplomatic discussion.

-- Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee contributed from Washington

U.N. HUMANITARIAN CHIEF SAYS AID EFFORTS ARE IN TATTERS

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The United Nations humanitarian chief says efforts to provide food, water and other supplies to millions in the Gaza Strip are in tatters.

Martin Griffiths said no place in the territory is safe because the pace of the Israeli military assault in southern Gaza is similar to the assault in the north.

"What's happening in Gaza is forcing the people of Gaza to choose where to be and to choose on the basis of violence -- and pressure," Griffiths said.

He said trucks with aid are still coming into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt, but that the U.N. and its partners are trying to find roads that haven't been mined or destroyed.

Griffiths said the U.N. has been negotiating for weeks to open the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel to allow trucks to go directly to northern Gaza as well as through Rafah and into the south.

"There are some promising signs now that that may be able to open soon," he said.

ISRAELI POLICE BLOCK PLANNED PARADE

JERUSALEM -- Israeli police on Thursday blocked a planned parade by several dozen Jewish ultranationalists through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.

The group had planned to enter the Muslim Quarter and make their way across the Old City to the Western Wall, which is the holiest site where Jews can pray.

But as the event began, police said the protesters began chanting racist anti-Arab chants, then tried to proceed without authorization. Police said some participants tried to run around police, and the event was prevented from taking place.

The march had raised fears that it could prompt new violence in Jerusalem. A similar event in 2021 by thousands of participants helped spark an 11-day Gaza war.

PROPOSAL WOULD TIE U.S. AID TO COMPLIANCE WITH LAWS OF WAR

WASHINGTON -- A dozen Senate Democrats, along with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, came out Thursday in support of requiring that pending U.S. military aid for Israel and other allies be used in compliance with the laws of war and international and U.S. law.

Led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the senators proposed their amendment in response to nearly two months of Israeli bombardment of neighbourhoods, refugee camps and other heavily populated sites across the Gaza Strip after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel.

The proposal, outlined in a joint letter Thursday, would attach the conditions in an amendment to a supplemental aid package pushed by the Biden administration that includes US$14.3 billion in wartime aid for Israel.

Israel has enjoyed strong bipartisan support from Congress for decades. The proposal to condition the upcoming wartime aid is not expected to pass either the Democratic-controlled Senate or Republican-held House. But the move signals that the rising civilian death toll in Gaza is leading to an erosion of support among some lawmakers in the U.S., Israel's most important ally.

NETANYAHU THREATENS PARTS OF LEBANON OVER HEZBOLLAH ATTACKS

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to flatten parts of Lebanon if the Hezbollah militant group escalates its attacks on Israeli targets.

Netanyahu delivered the threat on Thursday during a visit to a military base in northern Israel. The visit came as a 54-year-old Israeli farmer was killed by an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon.

Netanyahu said images of destruction in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip provide a glimpse of what could lie ahead for Lebanon.

"If Hezbollah chooses to launch an all-out war, then it will single-handedly turn Beirut and southern Lebanon, not far from here, to Gaza and Khan Yunis," he said.

The Israeli military said it struck Hezbollah infrastructure in response to rocket fire Thursday.

Hezbollah began firing rockets and targeting military installations along Israel's northern border after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and triggered the war.

The rocket fire -- and Israel's counter-attacks in Lebanon -- have led thousands of Israeli and Lebanese civilians who reside near the border to evacuate.

VIDEO SHOWS PALESTINIAN MEN BEING DETAINED IN GAZA

JERUSALEM -- In photos and video published Thursday, dozens of Palestinian men are seen sitting or kneeling in the streets of a northern Gaza town, stripped down to their underwear and hands bound behind their backs as they are guarded by Israeli troops.

The images were the first showing such detentions in the Israeli-Hamas war, now in its third month. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Israeli media said some of the images appeared to show suspected Hamas militants who had surrendered to Israeli forces.

However, the London-based news outlet Al-Araby al-Jadeed, or The New Arab, said one of the men seen in the photos is its Gaza correspondent Diaa al-Kahlout, and that he was rounded up with other civilians.

In a statement on its website, the news outlet said he was among dozens of men arrested in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, along with his brothers, relatives and others.

The report said the detained men were forced to strip and were searched before being taken to an unknown destination.

The images published Thursday were taken from the vantage point of Israeli troops.

FORMER ISRAELI MILITARY CHIEF'S SON KILLED IN GAZA

JERUSALEM -- The son of a former Israeli military chief and member of Israel's war cabinet has been killed while fighting in Gaza.

The Israeli military said Thursday that Master Sgt. Gal Meir Eizenkot, 25, died in a battle in northern Gaza.

His father, Gadi Eizenkot, served as military chief of staff from 2015 to 2019.

He recently entered politics as a member of the centrist National Unity Party. He joined the newly formed war cabinet as an observer on Oct. 12.

U.S. URGES ISRAEL TO ALLOW MORE AID TO GAZA

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is urging Israel to do more to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza and boost efforts to protect Palestinian civilians as it intensifies military operations in the south.

A senior U.S. State Department official says Blinken spoke with Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer on Thursday to say the U.S. is pleased with new deliveries of fuel to Gaza but still wants to see those and other assistance deliveries increased. At the same time, Blinken told Dermer that civilian casualties remain too high and that Israel must step up its efforts to reduce them.

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the private diplomatic discussion, would not characterize Dermer's response.

------

Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee contributed from Washington

RIGHTS GROUPS SAY ISRAELI STRIKES ON JOURNALISTS WERE LIKELY DELIBERATE

BEIRUT -- Two Israeli strikes that killed a Reuters videographer and wounded six other journalists in south Lebanon nearly two months ago were apparently deliberate and a direct attack on civilians, two international human rights groups said Thursday.

   Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the strikes should be investigated as a war crime. Their findings were released simultaneously with similar investigations by Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Israeli officials have said that they don't deliberately target journalists.

The investigations by the rights groups found that two strikes 37 seconds apart targeted the group of journalists near the village of Alma al-Shaab on Oct. 13.

The strikes killed Issam Abdallah and wounded Reuters journalists Thaer Al-Sudani and Maher Nazeh, Qatar's Al-Jazeera television cameraman Elie Brakhya and reporter Carmen Joukhadar, and AFP's photographer Christina Assi, and video journalist Dylan Collins.

The seven journalists were among many who deployed in southern Lebanon to cover the daily exchange of fire between members of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group and Israeli troops. The violence began a day after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel that triggered the latest Israel-Hamas war.

Amnesty International said it had verified more than 100 videos and photographs, analyzed weapons fragments from the site, and interviewed nine witnesses. It found that the group "was visibly identifiable as journalists and that the Israeli military knew or should have known that they were civilians yet attacked them."

ISRAEL SAYS IT'S ATTEMPTING TO INCREASE THE NUMBER OF AID TRUCKS IN GAZA

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israel says it is working to increase the number of aid trucks allowed into the Gaza Strip.

The UN says its ability to distribute aid inside Gaza has been severely impaired by fighting and road closures linked to Israel's widening offensive against Hamas.

The military body in charge of civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, known as COGAT, says it plans to open the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza for inspections in the coming days. The aid would still enter Gaza through Egypt via the Rafah crossing.

Before Hamas' Oct. 7 attack across the border, which ignited the war, Kerem Shalom was the main crossing for cargo into Gaza. It has been closed since then.

Col. Elad Goren, a COGAT official, said Thursday that Israel can currently inspect up to 250 trucks per day at the Nitzana crossing between Israel and Egypt, and that the number could increase to 400 with the opening of Kerem Shalom for inspections.

But he expressed doubt that international agencies would be able to distribute larger amounts of aid.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says efforts to bring aid into Gaza and distribute it have been impaired by fighting and road closures since Israel expanded its ground offensive into the south, with some of its staff and trucks stranded in central Gaza.

It says agencies have been unable to deliver aid north of the southernmost governorate of Rafah for four days.

ISRAEL FOREIGN MINISTER CRITICAL OF UN CHIEF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is sharply criticizing the UN secretary-general after he issued a dire warning over the situation in the Gaza Strip, calling Antonio Guterres' tenure at the world body "a danger to world peace."

Guterres wrote to the 15-member Security Council on Wednesday urging it to use its influence to avert "a humanitarian catastrophe" in Gaza. He also reiterated an urgent call for a humanitarian ceasefire and warned that Israel's bombardment will soon lead to a complete breakdown of public order.

Posting on the social media platform X, Cohen said Guterres' call for a ceasefire and request to activate Article 99 of the UN Charter "constitutes support of the Hamas terrorist organization and an endorsement of the murder of the elderly, the abduction of babies and the rape of women."

"Anyone who supports world peace must support the liberation of Gaza from Hamas," Cohen concluded.

It was the first time since Guterres took the helm of the United Nations in 2017 that he has written to the Security Council under Article 99, which lets him bring to the council's attention any matter he believes threatens international peace and security.

ISRAEL'S SECURITY CABINET APPROVES FUEL DELIVERIES TO GAZA

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his Security Cabinet has approved small deliveries of fuel into the Gaza Strip to prevent a humanitarian crisis and the spread of disease in the crowded southern part of the besieged territory.

Netanyahu says the "minimal amount" of fuel will be set by the three-member authority in charge of managing the war against Hamas.

Israel has greatly restricted fuel shipments into Gaza, saying that Hamas diverts it for military purposes. Humanitarian officials say the fuel shortages have crippled the health care system and hindered deliveries of basic humanitarian supplies.

Netanyahu's office said shipments would be approved "from time to time" for the southern Gaza Strip, where the vast majority of Gaza's population is concentrated.

The decision comes as Israel faces mounting pressure from the United States to ramp up aid to Gaza to avoid mass civilian casualties.

ISRAELI MILITARY SAYS HAMAS LEADER IS HIDING UNDERGROUND

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli army spokesman says Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar is hiding underground and it is the mission of the Israeli military to "find Sinwar and kill him."

Israeli forces have pushed deeper into Sinwar's hometown of Khan Younis over the past two days, heightening the focus on the Hamas leader seen as the mastermind of the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel.

Sinwar grew up in the refugee camp of Khan Younis which over the decades evolved into a crowded neighbourhood of the city. Mohammed Deif, the shadowy military leader of Hamas, is from the camp as well.

Earlier Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that troops "are encircling Sinwar's house," adding that "he can escape, but it's only a matter of time before we get him."

Asked later whether this meant troops were closing in on the Sinwar home, as some media had reported, Israeli army spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said: "The house of Sinwar is the area of Khan Younis."

"Sinwar is not above ground; he is underground," Hagari said. "I don't want to elaborate where and how and what we know in terms of intelligence. This is not the place to talk about such things in the media. Our job is to find Sinwar and kill him."

 ISRAELI MILITARY SAYS IT FOUND STASH OF WEAPONS

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli military said Wednesday that it found a large stash of weapons, including long-range rockets and explosives, near a clinic and school in northern Gaza.

The military released videos from inside Gaza of the weapons arranged neatly on the ground, and said they included hundreds of missiles and dozens of explosives, grenades and drones.

Israeli media reported that the weapons were found near Shati refugee camp, which Israeli forces gained control of during their offensive in the north of the strip.

ARAB NATIONS CALL FOR A CEASEFIRE

UNITED NATIONS -- Arab nations at the United Nations are fine-tuning a proposed UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in the two-month Israeli-Gaza war.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian UN ambassador, said Wednesday that it's essential that the UN's most powerful body demand a halt to the conflict following the resumption of bloodshed in Gaza after the end of a weeklong humanitarian truce on Dec. 1.

Surrounded by members of the 22-nation Arab Group, Mansour also told reporters that a ministerial delegation from Arab nations and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation headed by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister will be in Washington on Thursday to meet with U.S. officials.

"On top of the agenda is this war has to stop," he said. "A ceasefire has to take place and it has to take place immediately."

Mansour said the national security adviser to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris contacted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday morning and that Abbas pressed for an immediate ceasefire and more humanitarian aid.

The United States, Israel's closest ally, has veto power in the Security Council and has not supported a ceasefire.

On Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood told reporters that the role of the Security Council in the Israeli-Gaza war "is not to get in the way of this important diplomacy going on on the ground … because we have seen some results, although not as great results as we want to see."

A Security Council resolution at this time, he said, "would not be useful."

YAD VASHEM CALLS UNIVERSITIES' RESPONSE TO ANTISEMITISM INADEQUATE

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial says it is alarmed by the congressional testimonies of the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The memorial claims the universities had an inadequate response to campus antisemitism that has flared during the Israel-Hamas war.

In a statement Wednesday, Yad Vashem accused the presidents of "minimizing" and "contextualizing" antisemitism.

"The positions taken by the three university presidents in their testimonies highlight a basic ignorance of history, including the fact that the Holocaust did not start with ghettos or gas chambers, but with hateful antisemitic rhetoric, decrees and actions by senior academics, among other leaders of society," the statement said.

In recent weeks, the federal government has opened investigations into several universities, including Penn and Harvard, regarding antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus.

The university presidents told a House Committee on Tuesday that there is a fine line between protecting free speech and allowing protests, while also combatting antisemitism.

The academic leaders said they were taking steps to combat antisemitism on campus, including increasing security and providing additional counselling and mental health support.

UN CHIEF WARNS OF POSSIBLE HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE IN GAZA

UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations chief is urging the UN Security Council to use its clout to avert "a humanitarian catastrophe" in Gaza.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that the fast-deteriorating humanitarian system now risks a total collapse.

He reiterated his urgent call for a humanitarian ceasefire. He warned that Israel's bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza, who have no shelter or essentials to survive, will soon lead to a complete breakdown of public order.

Guterres wrote to the 15-member Security Council on Wednesday under Article 99 of the UN Charter for the first time since he took the helm of the 193-member world body in 2017. It allows the secretary-general to bring to the council's attention any matter that he believes threatens international peace and security.

Guterres said the desperate conditions in Gaza and the breakdown of public order will make humanitarian assistance impossible. He warned that "an even worse situation could unfold, including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into neighbouring countries."

"The international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis," Guterres said.

LEAFLETS IN KHAN YOUNIS

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip -- Residents of Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza and the latest focus of the Israeli military's ground offensive, say the army has showered the area with leaflets quoting a verse in the Quran.

Palestinians deciding whether to flee Khan Younis as Israeli tanks draw closer viewed the quoted verse, "The flood overtook them as they were wrongdoers," as an ominous portent.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment when asked about the leaflet drop.

Journalist Aamer Tabsh in Khan Younis said he saw Israeli planes drop thousands of the fliers.

Tabsh said residents are convinced the reference to the epic flood of Noah in the Quran and Bible "means that something much worse is coming."

Some are linking it to Hamas' name for its Oct. 7 attack against Israel, Al Aqsa Flood Battle. Others pointed to recent reports that the Israeli military was considering flooding Hamas' subterranean tunnel network with seawater to force out the militants.

JERUSALEM MARCH PLANNED FOR THURSDAY

JERUSALEM -- Ultranationalist Jews plan to march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City on Thursday in a demonstration that risks igniting new violence in the holy city.

Israeli police on Wednesday confirmed that they gave permission for a march of 200 people to pass through the Muslim Quarter and the Old City to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. The march coincides with the start of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Ultranationalist activists have called on supporters to honour the memory of fallen soldiers who died in the latest Gaza war and to push for expanded Jewish access to Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site.

Jews call the site the Temple Mount, the spot where the biblical Temples once stood. Muslims call it the Noble Sanctuary, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock.

Police said Thursday's march will not enter the compound.

Former Jerusalem police Chief Yair Yitzhaki told Army Radio he couldn't understand why police approved the march. He added that the route through the Muslim Quarter was "an attempt to anger and inflame the area."

Jerusalem has been the site of multiple Palestinian stabbing and shooting attacks since Israel's war with Hamas began on Oct. 7.

A similar march in 2021 boiled over into an 11-day Gaza war.

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