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Gaza evacuations suspended as Palestinian president presses US for ceasefire

EFFORTS were underway to resume evacuations of foreign nationals and injured Gazans through the Rafah crossing to Egypt, suspended since Saturday after a deadly attack on an ambulance, Egyptian, U.S. and Qatari officials said.

Palestinian telecommunications company Paltel said that all communications and internet services had once again been cut in the Gaza Strip amid continued bombardment while Gaza’s health ministry said dozens died in a strike on a refugee camp overnight.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demanded an immediate Israeli ceasefire at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah.

Blinken, who has dismissed the idea of a ceasefire by Israel for fear it would benefit Hamas, was making an unannounced visit to the occupied West Bank as part of efforts to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading.

Blinken said the Palestinian Authority should play a central role in the future of the Gaza strip, a U.S. official said after the visit.

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The Rafah crossing to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula is the only exit point from Gaza not controlled by Israel. Aid trucks were still able to travel into Gaza, two Egyptian sources said.

Evacuations began on Wednesday under an internationally brokered deal. More than 300 Americans have left Gaza, but some still remain, Jonathan Finer, deputy national security adviser, said.

‘TORN-APART FLESH’

At the Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza, people searched for victims or survivors.

“All night I and the other men were trying to pick the dead from the rubble. We got children, dismembered, torn-apart flesh,” said Saeed al-Nejma, 53, adding that he had been asleep with his family when the blast hit his neighbourhood.

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A spokesman for the health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip said Israeli forces had struck the camp overnight, killing at least 47 people. Asked for comment, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they were gathering details.

In a separate attack, 21 Palestinians from one family, including women and children, were killed in strikes overnight, the health ministry said. The IDF declined to comment.

Reuters could not independently verify these accounts.

“We demand that you stop them from committing these crimes immediately,” Abbas told Blinken, urging an “immediate ceasefire” from Israel.

“There are no words to describe the war of genocide and destruction to which our Palestinian people are being subjected in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli war machine, without regard to the rules of international law,” Palestinian news agency WAFA quoted Abbas as telling Blinken.

Foreign ministers from Qatar, Saudi, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates met Blinken in Amman on Saturday and also urged him to persuade Israel to agree to a ceasefire.

PAPAL APPEAL

Pope Francis joined calls for peace. “Stop in the name of God,” he said, calling for humanitarian aid and help for the injured to ease the “very grave” situation in Gaza.

But Blinken says a ceasefire would benefit Hamas, allowing it to regroup and attack again. Instead, the U.S. wants localised pauses in fighting to allow in humanitarian aid and for people to leave Gaza.

“The Secretary reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance and resumption of essential services in Gaza,” spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

In southern Turkey, police used tear gas and water cannons as hundreds of people at a pro-Palestinian rally tried to storm an air base that houses U.S. troops, hours before Blinken was due in Ankara on Monday for talks on Gaza.

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Israel says it is targeting Hamas, not civilians, and that Hamas is using residents as human shields.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again rejected calls for a ceasefire.

“There will be no ceasefire without the return of our hostages, we say this to both our enemies and our friends. We will continue until we beat them,” he said.

Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the IDF was focussing on ground operations in the north of Gaza “to free our hostages and to free Gaza from Hamas”.

“We will adapt our plan to stay with the goals, and it will take us a long time,” he added.

He said the IDF has exposed a network of Hamas tunnels, command centres and rocket launchers beneath and adjacent to hospitals in northern Gaza.

“Hamas systematically exploits hospitals as part of its war machine,” Hagari told reporters.

In a statement, Hamas called on the United Nations secretary general to form an international committee to visit hospitals to debunk Israel’s “false claims” that Hamas uses them to launch attacks

Gaza health officials said more than 9,770 Palestinians have been killed in the war, which began when Hamas launched a surprise attack on southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,400 people and taking more than 240 hostage.

Israel said 31 of its soldiers have been killed in Gaza operations so far.

‘HORRIFIC NIGHTMARE’

Israel continued to strike the Gaza Strip by air, sea, and ground overnight.

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The Palestinian Red Crescent said there was also intense bombardment, artillery explosions and air strikes in the vicinity of the Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza’s Tal Al-Hawa area.

The U.N. humanitarian office estimates that nearly 1.5 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are internally displaced.

The aid currently entering Gaza is “nowhere near” enough to meet people’s needs, World Food Programme head Cindy McCain said after visiting the Rafah border crossing.

“People are living in a horrific nightmare,” McCain said. “Food and water are running out. A steady flow of aid is needed to meet the desperate needs now.”

Qatar’s foreign ministry said that without a “period of calm” in Gaza its mediators would not be able to secure the release of Israeli hostages held in the enclave.

The Gulf state has, in coordination with the U.S., led mediation talks with Hamas and Israeli officials over the release of hostages since the October 7 attack.

The worsening violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has fuelled concerns it could become a third front in a wider war, in addition to Israel’s northern border, where clashes with Lebanese Hezbollah forces have mounted.

An Israeli strike on a car in southern Lebanon killed three people on Sunday, security sources in Lebanon said.

By NIDAL AL-MUGHRABI, ALI SAWAFTA and SIMON LEWIS

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