Biden, Netanyahu to speak by phone after Gaza deaths

Israel’s relentless bombing has destroyed much of Gaza – Copyright AFP –

Adel Zaanoun with Joshua Melvin in Jerusalem

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to speak on Thursday in their first phone call since an Israeli strike on an aid convoy killed seven aid workers in Gaza.

Biden led a chorus of international outrage over the attack on US-based World Central Kitchen workers who were distributing desperately needed food to a population on the brink of starvation.

“I can confirm that President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak tomorrow,” a US official told AFP on Wednesday.

The call comes after Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken” by the deadly attack, which killed a US-Canadian dual national along with three Britons, a Pole, an Australian and a Palestinian.

Biden’s heightened rhetoric and insistence that Israel do more to protect aid workers and civilians signaled growing frustration with how ally Israel is conducting its war with Hamas.

Israel claimed responsibility for the strike on aid workers, which it described as a mistake, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered the armed forces to “maintain open and transparent communication” with international aid organizations.

But Biden stressed that the attack – which hit WCK-branded vehicles after the organization said it coordinated moves with Israeli forces – was not an “isolated incident”.

At least 196 aid workers have been killed in Gaza in the nearly six-month-old war, nearly three times the number killed in any other conflict in a year, according to the UN coordinator.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the attack was “a symptom of a larger problem and evidence of why aid distribution in Gaza is so difficult.”

But the White House said Biden continued to support Israel’s “right to defend itself” and that there were no plans to cut arms supplies to a key U.S. ally.

Monday’s death raised questions about how to safely continue deliveries as the territory faces a deepening hunger crisis, with children reportedly dying of starvation.

The WCK, which described the strike as “targeted”, suspended its operations in the region and sent ships loaded with hundreds of tons of undelivered supplies back to their Mediterranean port.

Other groups have since scaled back or reassessed their operations, with the UN suspending overnight movements on Tuesday to “assess security issues”.

“Humanitarian aid organizations are unable to carry out their work safely,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

– “Difficult to provide food” –

The threat to Gaza’s lifeline comes as all 2.4 million Gazans are already struggling to eat, with famine expected to hit the north soon.

In Gaza City, Palestinians sleep overnight near an aid delivery point, hoping to secure a sack of flour.

“We’ve been waiting all night for this flour. We sleep on the streets, in the cold, on the sand, we endure hardships to provide food for our families, especially our young children,” one man told AFP on Wednesday.

“I don’t know what else to do or how our lives came to this.

Since the October 7 attacks by Hamas that started the war, Israel has sharply reduced aid deliveries to the already blockaded territory, with the number of trucks dwindling to a trickle.

Last week, Israel told the UN agency for Palestine refugees that its convoys would no longer be allowed into the north, where people consume an average of less than 245 calories a day, the charity Oxfam said on Wednesday.

“The minimum amount of food is less than 12 percent of the recommended daily intake of 2,100 calories needed per person,” the statement said.

In an effort to maintain a humanitarian lifeline, foreign powers have increased airdrops of aid to Gaza, while World Central Kitchen has been involved in establishing a sea route.

Biden ordered the US military to build a floating pier to offload supplies from the sea, with State Department spokesman Matthew Miller vowing Monday’s strike would not deter the plan.

“It will not affect our efforts to build a pier and deliver aid across the sea,” he told reporters.

On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council will consider a draft resolution calling for an arms embargo on Israel and condemning “the use of starvation of civilians as a means of waging war”.

The bill, which is backed by 18 states, will need 24 votes for a majority in the 47-nation council, but could pass with fewer if they abstain.

Israel has long accused the Human Rights Council of bias.

– ‘Urgent Problem’ –

Gaza’s bloodiest war left at least 61 more dead overnight, the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry said on Thursday, with the group’s press office reporting that Israeli strikes had destroyed dozens of homes in Khan Younis.

The war began with a Hamas attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,170 Israelis and foreigners, mostly civilians, according to AFP statistics based on Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign killed at least 32,975 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Palestinian militants also took more than 250 hostages on October 7, and 130 remain in Gaza, including 34 the military says are dead.

Families of the captives staged mass protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, increasing pressure on Netanyahu.

“There is one pressing problem, and that is the abductee,” protested Hadas Zubary, the aunt of hostage Naama Levy. “Now we should ask (for) a deal.”

However, talks on a ceasefire and a deal to release the hostages stalled as Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh accused Israel of stalling.

Qatar, which is brokering the indirect talks, said Israel objected to the demand to allow displaced Gazans to return to their homes.

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