Israel bombs Gaza as UN weighs new ceasefire call

At least 20 more people were killed overnight in strikes on the southern city of Rafah, the ministry says

By AFP

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Palestinians watch the destruction after the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip outside a morgue in Rafah, Tuesday, December 19, 2023. (Photo: AP)
Palestinians watch the destruction after the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip outside a morgue in Rafah, Tuesday, December 19, 2023. (Photo: AP)

Published: Tue 19 Dec 2023, 4:04 PM

Israel launched more deadly strikes on Gaza on Tuesday as the UN Security Council was due to vote on another ceasefire demand and concern mounted over the conflict's impact on global shipping.

One of Israel's enemies, Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels, in recent weeks launched a spate of attacks on cargo ships and tankers in the Red Sea, leading the United States to announce a 10-nation naval coalition to protect the vessels.

The Houthi missile and drone strikes, while claiming no lives so far, have led several major shipping and oil firms to halt voyages through the waters that lead to the Suez Canal, a chokepoint for about 10 percent of world trade.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin -- who on Monday again pledged "ironclad" US support for Israel -- travelled on to Qatar and joined an online conference on the naval coalition that includes warships from Britain, Canada, France and other countries.

The Houthis meanwhile warned they "will not stop" the attacks, which they say target Israel-linked vessels in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians and militant group Hamas.

Israel maintained its bombardment and ground combat on Tuesday in the third month of the bloodiest ever Gaza war, which started when Hamas launched their unprecedented attack on October 7.

The militants burst through the Gaza border fence, killed around 1,140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, and abducted 250, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry says Israel's withering military response has killed more than 19,400 people, mostly women and children, while devastating large swathes of the coastal territory.

At least 20 more people were killed overnight in strikes on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, the ministry said, bringing more suffering to the area that has become a vast camp for displaced Palestinians.

Israel's military said its troops found explosives planted in a medical clinic in the Gaza City suburb of Shejaiya, destroyed Hamas tunnels and killed Hamas operatives during recent operations.

The Israeli army says 131 of its troops have been killed in Gaza since it launched its ground invasion in late October.

The White House has voiced concern over the high civilian toll in Gaza, but Austin vowed Monday to keep arming Israel.

"We'll continue to provide Israel with the equipment that you need to defend your country... including critical munitions, tactical vehicles and air defence systems," he said.

International alarm has spiralled over the suffering brought by the war and siege for traumatised Palestinian families who have endured dire shortages of food, water, medical supplies and fuel as well as power and communications blackouts.

The New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch charged Monday that Israel was "using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare".

And the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell accused Israel of displaying an "appalling lack of distinction" in its Gaza campaign.

The UN Security Council was set to convene later Tuesday, after a one-day delay, to weigh another call for a ceasefire, after a previous bid was vetoed by the United States.

A draft of the resolution introduced by the United Arab Emirates called for an "urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities" in Gaza to allow "safe and unhindered humanitarian access".

Israel has allowed limited humanitarian aid deliveries into Gaza via Egypt's Rafah border crossing and, as of this week, through its own Kerem Shalom crossing.

The top concern for many Israelis remains the fate of the 129 hostages still held in Gaza after scores were released last month in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas's military wing released footage it claimed showed three of those still held captive -- elderly and bearded men sitting on chairs who asked to be released.

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari called it "a criminal terror video that is evidence of Hamas's brutality toward innocent elderly civilians who need medical attention".

The fear and anger of hostages' families intensified after Israeli soldiers last week mistakenly shot dead three captives who had escaped and were waving white flags.

Qatar, which helped mediate the previous week-long truce and hostage-prisoner exchange, has said there are "ongoing diplomatic efforts to renew the humanitarian pause".

US news platform Axios reported Monday that Israel's top spy, Mossad chief David Barnea, CIA director Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani had met in Warsaw.

Hamas has insisted it "is ready for a prisoner exchange deal, but after a ceasefire" -- while Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and its infrastructure to avoid a repeat of the October 7 attacks.

The Gaza war has sparked fears of regional escalation and seen Israel trade deadly cross-border fire with Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon.

The Houthi attacks have also intensified on the crucial maritime artery for an estimated 40 per cent of Europe-Asia trade.

Four of the world's biggest shipping companies -- CMA CGM Group, Hapag-Lloyd, Maersk and MSC -- have halted operations there or started to re-route their vessels, as has oil giant BP, in a move that sent up energy prices.

Voyages rerouted around Africa's Cape of Good Hope can take around 10 days longer, piling on fuel costs and threatening delays and supply shortages that can drive up consumer prices.

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