Biden to visit Israel as Gaza humanitarian crisis worsens

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Tel Aviv/Gaza (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will make a high stakes visit to Israel on Wednesday to show support for its war on Hamas, after Washington said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to let humanitarian aid reach besieged Gazans.

Israel has vowed to annihilate the Hamas movement that controls Gaza after Hamas gunmen killed 1,300 people, mainly civilians, during a rampage through southern Israeli towns on Oct. 7, the deadliest single day in Israel’s 75-year history.

Israel has bombarded the Gaza Strip with air strikes that have killed more than 2,800 Palestinians, a quarter of them children, and driven around half of the 2.3 million Gazans from their homes. It has imposed a total blockade on the enclave, halting food, fuel and medical supplies, which are rapidly running out.

Scores of trucks carrying vital supplies for Gaza headed towards the Rafah crossing in Egypt on Tuesday, the only access point to the enclave outside of Israel’s control, but there was no clear indication that they would be able to enter.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Biden’s planned visit at the end of hours of talks with Netanyahu, in which he said Netanyahu had agreed to develop a plan to get humanitarian aid to Gaza civilians. He gave no details.

Biden will “hear from Israel what it needs to defend its people,” Blinken said, and also hear how Israel “will conduct its operations in a way that minimizes civilian casualties and enables humanitarian assistance to flow to civilians in Gaza in a way that does not benefit Hamas.”

Washington is also trying to rally Arab states to help head off a wider regional war, after Iran pledged “preemptive action” from the “resistance front” of its allies which include the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

After visiting Israel, Biden is expected to travel to Jordan to meet King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

He will also meet Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which exerts limited self rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank but lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007.

The PA’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday accused Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Gaza and condemned the targeting of medical centers, hospitals, journalists and schools in air strikes.

Lifting Rubble With Bare Hands

In Jabalia, in the northern half of the Gaza Strip that Israel has ordered evacuated, frantic residents were using their bare hands to lift chunks of concrete and metal, crying out when they located bodies from under rubble in a huge, smoking bombing crater. Others ran with stretchers carrying the wounded.

A man emerged from a ruined building holding the limp body of a small boy in his arms, covered in chalky soot.

Residents fleeing the north have crammed into southern areas such as Khan Younis, but have found no respite from bombing there.

Amin Hneideq awoke to a powerful explosion in Khan Younis that sent the window crashing down, lacerating his daughter’s head. The bomb had missed his house but destroyed a home nearby, killing a family from the north that had sought shelter there.

“They brought them from the north just to strike them in the south,” said Hneideq, weeping.

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said only around 14 percent of Gazans had access to water through a single pipe to Khan Younis that Israel allowed to open for three hours on Monday.

“Concerns over dehydration and waterborne diseases are high given the collapse of water and sanitation services, including today’s shutdown of Gaza’s last functioning seawater desalination plant,” UNRWA said in a statement.

“People will start dying without water.”

Israel says 199 hostages were taken to Gaza during the militants’ raid last week. Hamas released a video overnight of one French-Israeli hostage, Maya Schem, calling on world leaders to help her and other captives get home.

Israel’s military called the video “psychological terror against Israeli citizens”. Schem’s mother told a press conference she was “begging the world to bring my baby back home”.

In addition to trying to get aid through the Rafah crossing, Washington also wants it opened to let out Gazans with foreign passports, including several hundred Palestinian Americans. Some Gazans with dual nationality tried to reach Rafah on Tuesday but said it was impossible because of Israeli air strikes.

Even if the crossing opens, the overwhelming majority of Gazans will not be let out. Egypt has said it would allow medical evacuations but rejects any mass exodus amounting to an unacceptable expulsion of Palestinians from their land.

U.S. officials say Israel is concerned that any aid it lets into Gaza could be used to benefit Hamas, and it is working on a plan to ensure that any deliveries are monitored and controlled. A senior U.S. official said Biden’s newly appointed envoy for humanitarian affairs in the Middle East, David Satterfield, would meet Israelis on Tuesday to start hammering out details.

Clashes In Israel’s North

As Israel plans an expected ground invasion of Gaza to root out Hamas, cross border fighting has also intensified on a second front on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Clashes there have been the deadliest since the last full-blown war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group displaced a million Lebanese 17 years ago.

The Israeli military said on Tuesday it had killed four people who had tried to cross the border to plant explosives. Israel ordered the evacuation on Monday of 28 of its villages in a 2-km-deep (1.2-mile) zone near the Lebanese border.

Iran, which sponsors both Hamas and Hezbollah, has celebrated the Hamas attacks on Israel but denies being behind them. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told state TV that “preemptive action” would be taken against Israel in the coming hours.

“All options are open and we cannot be indifferent to the war crimes committed against the people of Gaza,” Amirabdollahian said. “The resistance front is capable of waging a long-term war with the enemy.”

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told a group of students: “No one can confront Muslims and the resistance forces if the Zionist regime’s crimes against Palestinians continue.”

Netanyahu told parliament on Monday he had “a message for Iran and Hezbollah: don’t test us in the north. Don’t make the same mistake you once made. Because today the price you will pay will be much heavier.”

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