DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip –
Israel’s government faced calls for a ceasefire from some of its closest European allies and from protesters at home on Sunday after a series of shootings, including of three hostages who waved a white flag, added to mounting concerns about its conduct in the 10-week-old war in Gaza.
The protesters urge the government to renew hostage negotiations with Gaza’s Hamas rulers, whom it has vowed to destroy. Israel could also face pressure to scale back major combat operations when U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visits this week, as Washington has expressed growing unease with civilian casualties even while providing vital military and diplomatic support.
The air and ground war has flattened large parts of northern Gaza, killed thousands of civilians and driven most of the population to the southern part of the besieged territory, where many are packed into crowded shelters and tent camps. Some 1.9 million Palestinians — nearly 85% of Gaza’s population — have fled their homes.
They are surviving off a trickle of humanitarian aid. Israel said that starting Sunday, UN aid trucks would be able to enter Gaza from a second location, Kerem Shalom.
In a sign of desperation, dozens of Palestinians surrounded aid trucks after they drove in through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, forcing some to stop before climbing aboard, pulling boxes down and carrying them off. Other trucks appeared to be guarded by masked people carrying sticks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “will continue to fight until the end,” with the goal of eliminating Hamas, which triggered the war with its Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel. Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people that day, mostly civilians, and captured scores of hostages.
Netanyahu vowed to bring back the estimated 129 hostages still in captivity. Anger over the mistaken killing of hostages is likely to increase pressure on him to renew Qatar-mediated negotiations with Hamas over swapping more of the remaining captives for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Israeli media reported that David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, met over the weekend with Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who has mediated with Hamas, to discuss renewed talks.
Gaza, meanwhile, saw telecom services gradually resume after a four-day communications blackout, the longest of several outages during the war. Aid groups say they complicate rescue efforts and make it even more difficult to monitor the toll on civilians.
CALLS FOR A NEW CEASEFIRE
In Israel on Sunday, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna called for an “immediate truce” aimed at releasing more hostages, getting larger amounts of aid into Gaza and moving toward “the beginning of a political solution.”
France’s Foreign Ministry earlier said one of its employees was killed in an Israeli strike on a home in Rafah on Wednesday. It condemned the strike, which it said had killed several civilians, and demanded clarification from Israeli authorities.
The foreign ministers of the U.K. and Germany, meanwhile, called for a “sustainable” ceasefire, saying “too many civilians have been killed.”
“Israel will not win this war if its operations destroy the prospect of peaceful co-existence with Palestinians,” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote in the U.K.’s Sunday Times.
The U.S. defence secretary is set to travel to Israel to continue discussions on a timetable for ending the war’s most intense phase. Israeli and U.S. officials have spoken of a transition to more targeted strikes aimed at killing Hamas leaders and rescuing hostages, without saying when it would occur.
Scores of protesters set up tents outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Saturday, saying they would stay until the government resumed hostage negotiations with Hamas. “The hostages are experiencing hell and they are in mortal peril,” said Raz Ben-Ami, a hostage released in the last exchange. “Israel must offer another hostage-release deal.”
Hamas has said no more hostages will be released until the war ends, and that in exchange it will demand the release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including high-profile militants.
Hamas released over 100 of more than 240 hostages captured on Oct. 7 in exchange for the release of scores of Palestinian prisoners during a brief ceasefire in November. Nearly all freed on both sides were women and minors. Israel has rescued one hostage.
SHOOTINGS DRAW SCRUTINY
Military officials said Saturday that the three hostages who were mistakenly shot by Israeli troops had tried to signal that they posed no harm. It was Israel’s first such acknowledgement of harming hostages in a war that it says is largely aimed at rescuing them.
The three hostages, all in their 20s, were killed Friday in the Gaza City area of Shijaiyah, where troops are engaged in fierce fighting with Hamas. An Israeli military official said the shootings were against the army’s rules of engagement and were being investigated at the highest level.
Israel says it makes every effort to avoid harming civilians and accuses Hamas of using them as human shields. But Palestinians and rights groups have repeatedly accused Israeli forces of recklessly endangering civilians and firing on those who do not threaten them, both in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, which has seen a surge of violence since the start of the war.
Pope Francis on Sunday called for peace, saying “unarmed civilians are being bombed and shot at, and this has even happened inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists but families, children and sick people with disabilities, nuns.” He spoke after the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said two Christian women at a church compound in Gaza were killed by Israeli sniper fire.
At least five Palestinians were killed during an Israeli raid in a built-up refugee camp in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Sunday.
In Gaza, Palestinians on several occasions have said Israeli soldiers opened fire at fleeing civilians. Hamas has claimed other hostages were killed by Israeli fire or airstrikes, without presenting evidence.
The offensive has killed more than 18,700 Palestinians, the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory said Thursday. It has not been able to update the toll since then because of the communications blackout, and has said for weeks that thousands more casualties are buried under the rubble.
The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but throughout the war has said that most of those killed were women and children.
The plight of Palestinian civilians has gotten little attention inside Israel, where many are still deeply traumatized by the Oct. 7 attack and where support for the war remains strong.
Israel’s military says 121 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza offensive. It says it has killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this report.
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