As the war enters its fifth month, Hamas is putting up stiff resistance across the war-ravaged territory. Netanyahu vowed to press ahead with Israel’s military offensive in Gaza until achieving “absolute victory,” adding that the operation would last months, not years.
Israel's military has so far ordered Palestinians to evacuate two-thirds of the tiny coastal enclave. Many of the displaced are living in squalid tent camps near Gaza's southern border with Egypt and in overflowing U.N.-run shelters. A quarter of Gaza's residents are starving.
The Palestinian death toll has reached 27,707 people, the Health Ministry in Gaza said. That includes 123 bodies brought to hospitals in just the last 24 hours, it said Wednesday.
The war began with Hamas' Oct. 7 assault into Israel, in which militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250. Hamas is still holding over 130 hostages, but around 30 of them are believed to be dead.
— Israel and Hamas are far apart on a Gaza cease-fire and hostage deal. What are the sticking points?
— Drone strike in Baghdad kills a high-ranking militia commander, officials say
— Diapers and baby formula are hard to find in Gaza, leaving parents desperate.
— Gaza's main aid agency is on the brink. The European Union, a key donor, is wavering over what to do.
— Senate Democrats push to require that Biden consult Congress on weapons sales to Israel.
— Find more of AP's coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.
Here's the latest:
U.N. MIDEAST ENVOY SAYS ISRAELI OFFENSIVE INTO SOUTHERN GAZA WOULD BE CATASTROPHIC
UNITED NATIONS – The U.N.’s top Mideast envoy is warning of “catastrophic” consequences from a looming Israeli offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which would cut off the only working entry point for humanitarian aid.
Tor Wennesland told a U.N. press conference that intense discussions are taking place between Israel and Egypt on what can be done along the Philadelphia Corridor, a tiny buffer zone on Gaza’s border with Egypt. The corridor is demilitarized under under the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month that Hamas continues to smuggle weapons under the border – a claim Egypt vehemently denies – and that the war cannot end “until we close this breach,” referring to the corridor.
Wennesland said he sees no way of getting out of this dispute than having the two parties sitting and talking, adding that he is certain this issue was on the agenda of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Cairo and current talks in Israel.
The U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process said any agreement on a lasting ceasefire in Gaza “will be incredibly difficult to set up” because of the details and arrangements that need to be worked out.
Wennesland said he will be talking to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Security Council permanent members in New York and then go to Washington for meetings with U.S. officials on “how we can chart a way out of this crisis” and overcome the serious impediments to an agreement.
BLINKEN SAYS TOLL ON GAZA CIVILIANS FROM ISRAELI MILITARY OFFENSIVE IS STILL ‘TOO HIGH’
TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the toll from Israel’s military offensive on Gaza’s civilians remains “too high.”
Blinken made the comments Wednesday as he was in the region seeking to broker a cease-fire that would pause the fighting.
Blinken said the Israeli offensive, launched in response to a deadly Hamas cross-border attack on Oct. 7, is “fully justified.”
But he expressed concern about the effects of the offensive on Gaza’s civilians. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting, and the offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and led to a humanitarian crisis.
“As I told the prime minister and other Israeli officials, the daily toll that its military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high,” Blinken said.
DRONE STRIKE IN BAGHDAD KILLS HIGH-RANKING MILITIA COMMANDER, OFFICIALS SAY
BAGHDAD — A U.S. drone strike hit a car in the Iraqi capital Wednesday night, killing three members of the powerful Kataib Hezbollah militia, including a high-ranking commander, officials said.
The strike came on a main thoroughfare in the Mashtal neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. A crowd gathered as emergency response teams picked through the wreckage.
A U.S. official familiar with the matter said that a senior Kataib Hezbollah commander was targeted in a U.S. strike on Wednesday in Iraq. The official was not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
Two officials with Iran-backed militias in Iraq said that one of the three killed was Wissam Mohammed “Abu Bakr” al-Saadi, the commander in charge of Kataib Hezbollah’s operations in Syria. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.
The strike came amid roiling tensions in the region and days after the U.S. military launched an air assault on dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in retaliation for a drone strike that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan in late January.
The U.S. has blamed the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a broad coalition of Iran-backed militias, for the attack in Jordan, and officials have said they suspect Kataib Hezbollah in particular of leading it.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq has regularly claimed strikes on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria against the backdrop of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, saying that they are in retaliation for Washington’s support of Israel in its war in Gaza.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Ali Jabar in Baghdad and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed.
BLINKEN SAYS CEASE-FIRE DEAL BETWEEN ISRAEL AND HAMAS IS STILL POSSIBLE
TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas is still possible.
Blinken made the announcement late Wednesday after talks with Israeli leaders. The discussions focused on Hamas’ response to a cease-fire proposal floated by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar.
“While there are some clear nonstarters in Hamas’ response, we do think it creates space for an agreement to be reached,” Blinken said.
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected key Hamas demands, leaving the fate of the cease-fire efforts in question.
HAMAS DELGATION WILL GO TO EGYPT TO KEEP UP CEASE-FIRE TALKS, OFFICIAL SAYS
BEIRUT — A senior Hamas official says the Palestinian militant group will be sending a delegation to Cairo to continue talks on a cease-fire and hostage release deal.
Osama Hamdan made the remarks Wednesday after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a Hamas plan that would effectively leave the group in power, a scenario that contradicts Israel’s stated war aims.
Hamdan did not say when the delegation would leave to Cairo. But its departure signals that talks are still ongoing despite the posturing from both Hamas and Netanyahu.
Hamdan said the group's terms would continue to evolve while insisting on a permanent cease-fire.
Speaking from the Lebanese capital Beirut, Hamdan called on the group’s militants to carry on its confrontations with the Israeli military.
ISRAELI NAVY KILLS 2 GAZA FISHERMEN
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — A Palestinian health official says two fishermen have been killed by Israeli navy fire on their boat off the Gaza coast.
Dr. Marwan al-Hams, the director of Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital, says the men were killed just off the coast of Rafah in southern Gaza. He says their bodies were transferred to his hospital.
This killing is the latest in a series of attacks in Rafah over the past two days. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans have sought shelter in Rafah in recent weeks.
Late Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s military offensive would soon move to Rafah.
NETANYAHU REJECTS HAMAS TRUCE PLAN AND VOWS TO FIGHT UNTIL ‘ABSOLUTE VICTORY’
JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Hamas demands for a cease-fire and vowed to press ahead with Israel’s military offensive in Gaza until achieving “absolute victory.”
Netanyahu made the comments Wednesday shortly after meeting the visiting U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who has been traveling the region in hopes of securing a cease-fire agreement.
“We are on the way to an absolute victory,” Netanyahu said, adding that the operation would last months, not years. “There is no other solution.”
He ruled out any arrangement that leaves Hamas in full or partial control of Gaza. He also said that Israel is the “only power” capable of guaranteeing security in the long term.
Netanyahu also called for the replacement of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
Blinken was scheduled to give a news conference later Wednesday.
ISRAELI STRIKE IN GAZA KILLS POLICE OFFICER IN HAMAS-RUN AGENCY
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — An Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza town of Rafah has killed an officer in the Hamas-run police force.
The airstrike late Wednesday hit the car carrying Lt. Col. Magdy Abdel-Al, killing him instantly and reducing the vehicle to a scrap pile. Terrified children at a nearby displacement camp ran away after hearing the loud blast.
Abdel-Al was traveling alone. People struggled to remove his body from the car, and his remains were transferred to the nearby Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital.
Abdel-Al was the head of the police’s intervention and law-enforcement units in Rafah.
A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed the death.
Associated Press writer Najib Jobain contributed.
UN CHIEF WARNS ISRAELI ARMY PUSH INTO SOUTHERN GAZA WOULD WORSEN A ‘HUMANITARIAN NIGHTMARE’
UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations chief is warning that the Israeli military’s reported intention to focus its offensive next in overcrowded southern Gaza “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences.”
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the U.N.’s 193 member nations Wednesday he is “especially alarmed” about military action in the border town of Rafah “where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been squeezed in a desperate search for safety.”
Guterres reiterated his call for an immediate cease-fire and the unconditional release of all hostages taken by Hamas during its surprise Oct. 7 attacks into Israel. He said a cease-fire and hostage release “must rapidly lead to irreversible actions towards a two-state solution, based on United Nations resolutions, international law and previous agreements.”
He called the current situation in Gaza “a festering wound on our collective conscience that threatens the entire region.”
“Nothing justifies the horrific terror attacks launched by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7,” Guterres said. “Nor is there any justification for the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
The U.N. chief said Israel’s military operations have caused death and destruction in Gaza “at a scale and speed without parallel” since he became secretary-general in January 2017.
ISRAELI PROTESTERS BLOCK AID TRUCKS FROM ENTERING GAZA
JERUSALEM — An Israeli defense body says Israeli protesters have prevented trucks carrying humanitarian aid from entering Gaza through a key goods crossing.
COGAT, an Israeli defense body in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs, said no trucks were able to enter through the Kerem Shalom crossing Wednesday, although a separate crossing inspecting goods that then enter through Egypt was working as normal.
The protests at Kerem Shalom have been going on for days. Demonstrators don’t want aid entering Gaza, saying it keeps Hamas operational and disincentivizes it from releasing hostages held in the territory. Aid groups say that even when the crossing is fully operational, the amount of aid entering is insufficient for the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.
Last week, after days of protests blocking the trucks, the Israeli army declared the area around Kerem Shalom a closed military zone, temporarily halting the protests. But this week, a coalition of activist groups was able to enter and physically prevent the trucks from moving. It wasn’t immediately clear how the protesters were able to enter a closed military zone.
In the early days of the war, Israel had prevented aid from entering besieged Gaza but relented under U.S. pressure.
ISRAELI AIRSTRIKE KILLS INFANT AND 2 WOMEN IN RESIDENTIAL BUILDING IN SOUTHERN GAZA
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — An Israeli airstrike on a residential building in the southern Gaza Strip killed a 3-month-old infant as well as two women, according to an Associated Press journalist who viewed the bodies at a local hospital.
The strike Wednesday occurred in the southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt. More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have been driven by the war into Rafah and surrounding areas.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said earlier this week that the country's military offensive will eventually reach Rafah, vowing to push ahead until the army has “full reign” over all of Gaza.
ISRAELI STRIKES KILL A CIVILIAN IN SOUTHERN LEBANON
BEIRUT — Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon killed a man identified as a civilian and wounded two others, according to the man’s family and a local hospital.
The man was identified by his family as Mohamad Awada and the strike hit the town of Khiam on Wednesday.
Israel and the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group have been engaging in low-intensity but deadly fighting since the start of the war in Gaza.
During that time, 228 people have been killed in Lebanon, 173 of them identified by Hezbollah as fighters. Israeli authorities say nine soldiers and nine civilians have been killed in attacks by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah announced two attacks Wednesday, a rocket attack on a gathering of Israeli troops and another attack on what they called “technical equipment,” without elaborating.
International governments are scrambling to prevent hostilities on the Lebanon-Israel border from spiraling into all-out war. Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006 that ended in a stalemate.
SEQUENCING OF HAMAS PROPOSAL FOR A NEW GAZA CEASE-FIRE REVEALED
BEIRUT — An official familiar with the talks over a new Gaza cease-fire and hostage release agreement has clarified the sequencing of Hamas’ proposal.
Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to the Hezbollah militant group, a Hamas ally, on Wednesday published a copy of Hamas’ demands for the release of more than 100 hostages held in Gaza.
A Hamas official and two Egyptian officials confirmed its authenticity. A fourth official familiar with the talks later clarified the sequencing of the releases. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media on the negotiations.
In the first of three 45-day phases, Hamas would release all remaining women and children, as well as older and sick men, in exchange for an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Israel would also withdraw from populated areas, cease aerial operations, allow far more aid to enter and permit Palestinians to return to their homes, including in devastated northern Gaza.
The second phase, to be negotiated during the first, would include the release of all remaining hostages, mostly soldiers, in exchange for all Palestinian detainees over the age of 50, including senior militants.
Israel would release an additional 1,500 prisoners, 500 of whom would be specified by Hamas, and complete its withdrawal from Gaza.
In the third phase, the sides would exchange the remains of hostages and prisoners.
The proposal would effectively leave Hamas in power in Gaza and allow it to rebuild its military capabilities, a scenario Israel has vehemently rejected.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Abby Sewell in Beirut and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.
ISRAEL REVEALS FOOTAGE OF TUNNEL NETWORK IN SOUTHERN GAZA
JERUSALEM — The Israeli military has revealed footage of an extensive tunnel network in southern Gaza that it says housed senior Hamas leaders and was used to hold at least 12 hostages at different times.
According to a map released Wednesday by the army, the multi-branched tunnel beneath the city of Khan Younis was over a kilometer (about 0.6 miles) long and had at least 16 rooms, some of which were used as cells to hold hostages with metal bars across the entrance.
Soldiers also uncovered a rudimentary kitchen, bathroom, and weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
The tunnel was outfitted with electricity sockets, sinks, beds, and arched ceilings. Many of the rooms had decorative tiles on the walls.
Israel has said destroying the tunnels is a major objective of the ground offensive in Gaza, which has focused on Khan Younis in recent weeks. The military says its forces battled militants inside the tunnel, killing several, without providing evidence.
Several hostages freed in a cease-fire deal in November described being held inside tunnels. The military said three returned captives had been held in the tunnel beneath Khan Younis.
Hamas is believed to have built hundreds of kilometers (miles) of tunnels, which it uses to shield its fighters. Israel has uncovered several tunnels in residential areas, running beneath or near schools, hospitals and mosques.
SAUDI ARABIA WON'T ESTABLISH TIES WITH ISRAEL WITHOUT GAZA WITHDRAWAL
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia says it won’t normalize ties with Israel without recognition of an independent Palestinian state and a full Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza.
The Foreign Ministry outlined its “firm position” in a statement released Wednesday, two days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Biden administration has spent much of the past year pushing for a potentially historic agreement in which Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel in return for U.S. defense guarantees, assistance in setting up a civilian nuclear program and major progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the latest statement, Saudi Arabia appeared to sharpen its demands.
“The Kingdom has communicated its firm position to the U.S. administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip,” the statement said.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – territories the Palestinians want for their future state – in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized by most of the international community and views the entire city as its capital. It has built Jewish settlements across the occupied West Bank that are now home to over 500,000 Israelis. It withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but along with Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory when Hamas seized power there two years later.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government staunchly opposed to Palestinian statehood and has said Israel will maintain open-ended security control over Gaza even after the war against Hamas.
HAMAS RESPONDS TO A CEASE-FIRE PLAN
BEIRUT — Hamas’ response to a proposed cease-fire and hostage release deal has been published in a Lebanese newspaper.
The document, whose authenticity was confirmed by officials, offers the clearest look yet at the group’s demands for the release of over 100 hostages it is holding in Gaza.
The response to a plan drawn up by the U.S., Israel, Qatar and Egypt envisions a three-phase agreement unfolding over 4 ½ months leading to the end of the war and the release of all hostages.
Hamas’ proposal would effectively leave the militant group in power in Gaza and allow it to rebuild its military capabilities, a scenario that Israel adamantly rejects.
In the first 45-day phase, Hamas would release all remaining women and children, as well as older men and those who are ill, in exchange for the release of all the women, children, sick and older prisoners held by Israel. Israel would release an additional 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, including 500 specified by Hamas – likely high-profile militants serving life sentences.
Israel would withdraw its forces from population centers, halt aerial operations and allow in far more humanitarian aid and the start of reconstruction. It would also allow displaced people to return to their homes, including in northern Gaza, and open all crossings.
In the second phase, which would be negotiated during the first, Hamas would release the remaining hostages, mainly soldiers and civilian men, in exchange for more prisoners, and Israel would complete its withdrawal from Gaza. The two sides would exchange the remains of deceased hostages and prisoners in a third stage, which would give way to a long-term truce.
A Hamas official and two Egyptian officials confirmed the authenticity of the document published by Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media on the sensitive negotiations. The newspaper is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, an ally of Hamas.
By Associated Press writers Abby Sewell and Samy Magdy