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US pushes for pause in Gaza as Israel suffers worst loss of soldiers

THE White House said on Tuesday its envoy was having active discussions about ensuring the release of hostages in Gaza and securing a humanitarian pause in the war after Israel suffered its worst loss of soldiers in over three months of conflict.

In the hours after the death toll of 24 from two separate incidents became clear, officials in Israel reiterated that the objectives of its war against the Palestinian Hamas movement that runs Gaza were unchanged and that efforts were being made to bring about the release of more than 100 hostages.

Acknowledging Monday had been one of the most difficult days since the war broke out, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “In the name of our heroes, for the sake of our lives, we will not stop fighting until absolute victory.”

Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said there would be no ceasefire that left Hamas in power and hostages in Gaza, following the militant group’s cross-border rampage on October 7 in which some 1,200 Israelis were killed.

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Palestinian health officials said at least 195 Palestinians had been killed in the past 24 hours, raising the documented death toll from Israeli air strikes and shelling to 25,490. Thousands more are feared lost in the rubble.

The soldiers’ deaths came on the day the Israeli military launched its biggest operation in a month, to seize the remaining parts of Khan Younis, encircling Gaza’s main southern city that is sheltering hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians.

Israeli forces have killed more than 100 militants in western Khan Younis in the past 24 hours, military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Tuesday evening. Israel says it has killed around 9,000 militants in total. Reuters is unable to verify the number.

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U.S. ENVOY IN CAIRO

However, giving weight to media reports that a deal could be in the works to pause the fighting at least temporarily and free hostages, Qatar’s foreign ministry had said earlier in the day it was engaging in serious discussions with both sides.

“We have presented ideas to both sides, we are getting a constant stream of replies from both sides and that in its own right is a cause for optimism,” foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said.

White House spokesperson John Kirby said later U.S. Middle East envoy Brett McGurk was in Cairo and would travel in the region for “active” discussions on ensuring the release of hostages and securing a humanitarian pause.

“The conversations are very sober and serious about trying to get another hostage deal in place,” Kirby told reporters.

Each of the warring sides blamed the other for causing the collapse of a seven-day truce in November by rejecting terms to extend the daily release of hostages held by militants in exchange for Palestinian detainees.

Women, children and foreign hostages were freed, but mediators failed at the final hour to find a formula to release more, including Israeli soldiers and civilian men.

On Tuesday, former hostage Aviva Siegel, 62, who was taken captive from Kfar Aza kibbutz with her husband who is still held in Gaza, spoke at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, during a discussion about sexual abuse during the war.

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“I can’t live with it. I can’t breathe. I can’t cope with it. It’s too difficult. It’s been almost four months and they are still there … Something has to change. Urgently. Now,” said Siegel, who was released during the November truce.

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TANKS SHUT KHAN YOUNIS ROAD

Giving details of the latest Israeli casualties, military spokesman Hagari said 21 of the soldiers were killed when “a militant squad surprised the force with RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fire” on Monday.

He said the first rocket hit a building in which explosives had been laid out to demolish it. This led to an explosion that caused the collapse of the building and the one next to it.

Three soldiers were killed in a separate attack. In total, 220 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground offensive in late October.

Families and friends mourned at funerals across Israel, touching coffins draped in the national flag and hugging one another in their grief.

Advancing Israeli tanks shut the road out of Khan Younis towards the Mediterranean coast on Tuesday, blocking the escape route for civilians trying to reach Rafah, the last town on Gaza’s southern edge bordering Egypt – now crammed with more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people.

“I am trying to leave for Rafah but the tanks are now very near to the coast and are firing toward the west,” Shaban, 45, an electrical engineer with four children, said by phone.

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The Israelis have blockaded hospitals, which Palestinian officials say makes it impossible to rescue the dead and wounded. At the European Hospital, reached by Reuters in southern Khan Younis, Ahed Masmah brought in five corpses, piled on a mattress on his donkey cart.

“I found them face down in the street,” he said.

At Khan Younis’ main Nasser hospital, the biggest still functioning in the Gaza Strip, bodies were being buried on the grounds because it was unsafe to go out to the cemetery.

Ashraf Al-Qidra, spokesperson for Gaza’s health ministry, said medical teams were unable to transfer critical cases from the Nasser Medical Complex to the nearby Jordanian field hospital due to ongoing shelling.

Israel says Hamas fighters operate in and around hospitals, which hospital staff and Hamas deny.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, said six displaced people had been killed at one of the biggest U.N.-run shelters in Khan Younis. The Israeli military said it was unaware of any strikes in that area at the time in question.

After nightfall, an Israeli air strike hit a house in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, killing seven Palestinians, health officials said.

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By ARAFAT BARBAKH, EMILY ROSE and JEFF MASON

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