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Blinken pushes for truce extension in Gaza to allow more aid in and hostages out

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BRUSSELS — As a fragile truce held Wednesday in Gaza, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States wanted Israel to extend a pause in its military offensive to secure the release of more hostages, including Americans, and allow humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians.

An extension of the pause “by definition means that more hostages would be coming home, more assistance would be getting in. So clearly that’s something we want,” Blinken told reporters at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, after a meeting with alliance foreign ministers in which the Gaza conflict intruded on conversations about security in Europe and Ukraine.

“I believe it’s also something that Israel wants,” Blinken added, while stopping short of calling for a permanent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

The pause in fighting, to allow the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners and detainees, was announced last week and set to expire early Thursday.

Officials involved in the truce negotiations, which are being mediated by Qatar, have said it was likely to be extended, at least for a few days — providing the smallest of respites in Gaza, which has been bludgeoned by nearly eight weeks of Israeli air and artillery strikes, as well as ground assaults, that have killed more than 13,000 people and led to the displacement of more than 80 percent of the enclave’s population of 2.2 million people, according to the United Nations.

The conflict erupted on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants carried out a brazen attack in Israel, killing 1,200 people and grabbing hundreds of hostages.

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U.N. officials who this week visited northern Gaza, a focus of Israel’s offensive, described a hellish landscape in the Jabalya refugee camp, cut off from humanitarian assistance for nearly 50 days.

“Buildings have just been cleaved open. A mess of masonry, twisted metal and sheet iron blown everywhere,” Thomas White, director of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, said in a statement.

“As we drove through Gaza City it was like a ghost town; all the streets were deserted. The impact of heavy airstrikes and shelling was so visible. Roads are riddled with craters, complicating aid deliveries.”

Only four primary-care clinics and two hospitals were fully operational in northern Gaza on Wednesday, according to Medhat Abbas, spokesman for Gaza’s Health Ministry. He said more fuel is expected to arrive in the enclave Wednesday. The fuel is necessary to continue providing services, amid reports that health-care facilities had to close because of power shortages.

The al-Ahli and al-Sahaba maternity hospitals are functioning, Abbas said, while Kamal Adwan Hospital and al-Awda Hospital “have been providing partial services since yesterday.” He said “work is underway to provide fuel” to drugstores inside Gaza to keep vaccines — which must be stored at specific temperatures — from spoiling.

Earlier this month, hospitals became a focal point of fighting in northern Gaza after Israel accused Hamas of using the buildings as strategic hubs — claims denied by the militant group as well as the hospitals. Many of the medical facilities were caught in the crossfire, with those sheltering inside unable to leave.

The Biden administration is pressing Israel to significantly dial back the ferocity of its assault on Gaza to limit civilian casualties. U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about the heavy toll of the offensive, an effort that Israel says is aimed at eliminating Hamas as a security threat.

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U.S. citizens remain among the hostages held by Hamas, upping the stakes for the Biden administration. CIA Director William J. Burns has been meeting in Qatar with Israel’s spy chief and Qatar’s prime minister in a bid to expand the hostage deal and lengthen the pause in fighting, and Blinken, who will travel to Israel on Thursday, will underline a similar message in his talks there.

Blinken also plans to travel to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where he will meet with Palestinian leaders. He and other U.S. officials are trying to start planning for what happens once the conflict is over — “the day after, and the day after the day after,” as Blinken put it Wednesday. The Biden administration says the beleaguered Palestinian Authority is the best entity to administer Gaza, although it is deeply unpopular among ordinary Palestinians, many of whom see it as weak and deferential to Israeli interests.

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven and the high representative of the European Union have also said they support a further extension. But Israel officials have insisted the pause will not lead to a permanent cease-fire.

“This war will end with the end of Hamas,” Eylon Levy, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister’s office, said during a briefing Wednesday. Israel was using the pause in fighting to “to strengthen our preparations and approve battle plans for the continuation of the war to destroy Hamas in response to the October 7 massacre and we will continue when Hamas stops releasing hostages,” he said.

Liat Beinin, 49, a U.S.-Israeli dual citizen, is on a list of hostages scheduled to be released from Gaza later Wednesday, her family confirmed, while cautioning that nothing is final until she is out of captivity.

Beinin is one of nine Americans and a green-card holder who are believed to be among the hostages, according to U.S. officials. So far just one — Abigail Edan, who turned 4 in captivity — has been released. One other American woman, a 70-year-old grandmother, is also believed to be in captivity. The other U.S. hostages are men: They include a 23-year-old who was at a trance music festival and seriously injured in the Oct. 7 attack, a 35-year-old father, a 64-year-old grandfather and three young men serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Beinin is a high school history and civics teacher and the mother of three children. She was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz. Her husband, Aviv Atzili, 49, is also one of the hostages. Atzili oversaw the heavy agricultural machinery used to farm the kibbutz’s thousands of acres of peanuts, carrots and potatoes.

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The couple’s oldest child, 22, was at a friend’s house the day of the rampage and managed to remain hidden. Their middle child, 20, survived by holding the handle of a safe room door closed, preventing the attackers from entering. Their youngest child, 18, was not on the kibbutz during the attack.

While violence has eased in Gaza, Israel has continued military operations in the occupied West Bank, including a raid overnight in Jenin, a center of Palestinian resistance. Palestinian health authorities said Israeli forces killed two children during the raid. Israel’s military said the operation killed two militant leaders.

The raid began Tuesday evening shortly after 8 p.m. local time, when Israeli armored vehicles descended on the city and surrounded the main hospital. Israeli drones whined overhead, and booms from airstrikes and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire sounded through the night and into the morning Wednesday, as Israeli troops laid siege to houses in the refugee camp and in the nearby town of al-Yamoun, according to residents and accounts shared on social media channels affiliated with Jenin militant groups.

For hours overnight and into the morning, Israeli forces blocked ambulances from accessing neighborhoods in which they were operating, or from entering the city’s public hospital, according to Mahmoud al-Saadi, head of the Palestine Red Crescent Society’s branch in Jenin.

The armored vehicles left the hospital by midmorning. In the early afternoon, ambulances rushed two boys to the emergency department: one, bleeding from a bullet wound to his head, and a second, several minutes later, lying pale and still on a stretcher, as medics frantically performed CPR.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Health Ministry later announced that both had died of their wounds, and identified them as Adam al-Ghul, 8, and Bassem Abu al-Wafa, 15.

Israeli security forces said in a joint statement Wednesday that they had killed Muhammad Zubeidi, whom they identified as “the Jenin camp commander” and “a senior Islamic Jihad operative.”

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Zubeidi was involved in two shooting attacks in May that together killed one Israeli civilian and injured another as well as four IDF soldiers, the statement said. Another militant, Hussam Hanoun, was also killed in the raid.

Fahim reported from Beirut, Slater from Williamstown, MA and Parker from Jenin, West Bank. Annabelle Timsit and Miriam Berger in Jerusalem and Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Source: Washington Post

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