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Biden, Netanyahu to speak by phone following Gaza aid deaths

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US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to speak on Thursday in their first phone call since an Israeli strike on a humanitarian convoy killed seven aid workers in Gaza.

Biden has led a chorus of international anger over the attack on employees of US-based World Central Kitchen, who were distributing desperately needed food to a population on the verge of famine.

“I can confirm President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak tomorrow,” a US official told AFP on Wednesday.

The call comes after Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken” by the deadly strike, whose victims included a US-Canadian dual national, along with three Britons, a Pole, an Australian and a Palestinian.

Biden’s sharpening rhetoric, and insistence that Israel do more to protect aid workers and civilians, has indicated growing frustrations with how ally Israel is conducting its war on Hamas.

Israel has taken responsibility for the strike on the aid workers, which it called a mistake, and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant instructed the armed forces to “maintain an open and transparent line of communication” with international organisations conducting relief work.

But Biden has emphasised the attack — which hit WCK-branded vehicles after the organisation said it had coordinated movements with Israeli forces — was not a “stand-alone incident”.

At least 196 aid workers have been killed in Gaza in the almost six-month-old war, nearly three times the toll inflicted by any other single conflict in a year, according to a UN coordinator.

US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters the strike was “emblematic of a larger problem and evidence of why distribution of aid in Gaza has been so challenging”.

But the White House said that Biden continued to support Israel’s “right to defend itself” and there were no plans to curb arms deliveries to the key US ally.

Monday’s deaths have thrown into question how to safely continue deliveries as the territory faces a deepening hunger crisis, with children reportedly dying of starvation.

WCK, which called the strike “targeted”, suspended its operations in the region and sent ships laden with hundreds of tonnes of undelivered supplies back to their Mediterranean port.

Other groups have since curtailed or reassessed their operations, with the UN on Tuesday pausing nighttime movement for the “evaluation of the security issues”. 

“Humanitarian aid organizations are unable to carry out their work safely,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross.

– ‘Hardship to secure food’ –

The threat to Gaza’s aid lifeline comes as all of its 2.4 million people are already struggling to get enough to eat, with famine projected to soon hit the north. 

In Gaza City, Palestinians sleeping overnight near an aid delivery spot hoped to secure a bag of flour.

“We wait all night for this flour. We sleep on the streets, in the cold, on the sand, enduring hardship to secure food for our families, especially our young children,” one man told AFP on Wednesday. 

“I don’t know what else to do or how our lives have come to this.”

Since the October 7 Hamas attacks that started the war, Israel has heavily restricted aid deliveries to the already blockaded territory, with the number of trucks dwindling to a small trickle.

Last week, Israel told the UN agency for Palestinian refugees its convoys would no longer be allowed in the north, where people have been consuming fewer than 245 calories per day on average, charity Oxfam said Wednesday. 

“The miniscule amount of food represents less than 12 per cent of the recommended daily 2,100 calorie intake needed per person,” it said in a statement. 

To try to maintain the humanitarian lifeline, foreign powers have increased aid airdrops into Gaza, while the World Central Kitchen was involved in establishing a maritime route. 

Biden has instructed the US military to build a floating pier to unload supplies from the sea, with State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller vowing Monday’s strike would not deter that plan. 

“It will not affect our efforts to stand up the pier to deliver aid through sea,” he told reporters.

On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council will consider a draft resolution calling for an arms embargo on Israel and condemning “the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”.

The draft, which is backed by 18 states, will need 24 votes for a majority on the 47-country council, but it could possibly pass with fewer if there are abstentions. 

Israel has long accused the Human Rights Council of bias.

– ‘Urgent issue’ –

The bloodiest-ever Gaza war claimed at least 61 more lives overnight, the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said on Thursday, with the group’s press office reporting Israeli strikes destroyed dozens of homes in Khan Yunis.

The war began with Hamas’s October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,170 Israelis and foreigners, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 32,975 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

Palestinian militants also took more than 250 hostages on October 7, and 130 remain in Gaza, including 34 who the army says are dead.

Families of the captives have staged mass protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, heaping pressure on Netanyahu.

“There is one urgent issue, and this is the kidnapped,” protester Hadas Zubary, the aunt of hostage Naama Levy, said. “We should ask (for) a deal now.”

Talks for a ceasefire and hostage release deal have stalled, however, with Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh accusing Israel of procrastinating. 

Qatar, which is mediating the indirect talks, said Israel has objected to the demand to allow displaced Gazans to return to their homes.

Source: Digital Journal

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