The Latest | Netanyahu remains set on Rafah ground invasion despite US misgivings

Palestinians inspect the damage to a house after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians inspect the damage to a house after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he remains determined to carry out a Rafah ground offensive, despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s misgivings.

Earlier, Qatari officials said they were “cautiously optimistic” after talks with Israel’s intelligence chief in Doha aimed at trying to reach a cease-fire, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said Tuesday at a news conference, stressing that an Israeli ground operation in Rafah would set back any talks.

Meanwhile, incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa laid out wide-ranging plans for a revitalized Palestinian Authority and an independent trust fund to oversee Gaza’s reconstruction in a mission statement acquired Tuesday by The Associated Press. But the plans face major obstacles, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to any return of the PA to Gaza.

Fighting in the enclave has left at least 31,819 Palestinians dead, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead. A United Nations food agency warned that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in the surprise Oct. 7 attack out of Gaza that triggered the war, and and abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

Currently:

— Incoming Palestinian prime minister lays out plans for reform but faces major obstacles.

— Israelis evacuated from the Lebanese border wonder if they’ll ever return.

— Netanyahu agrees to send Israeli officials to Washington to discuss a prospective Rafah operation.

— Israel urges a top United Nations court to reject South Africa’s request for more emergency orders in a genocide case.

— Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Here’s the latest:

UNRWA HEAD SAYS ISRAEL BARRED HIS ENTRY INTO GAZA

JERUSALEM — The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees says Israel singled him out by refusing his entry into the Gaza Strip.

Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, UNRWA commissioner Philippe Lazzarini challenged Israel’s claim that he was barred entry due to mistakes on his entry application.

Lazzarini, who has been to Gaza numerous times, says he was the only member of his delegation to be blocked by the Israeli defense body COGAT from entering on Monday.

“I hear COGAT saying that … I did not fill the right form, that was the public explanation, but be re-assured that all members of my delegation were authorized to enter except the commissioner-general,” he said.

Israel has repeatedly accused UNRWA, the largest aid organization in Gaza, of providing cover for Hamas and has also alleged at least 12 UNRWA workers participated in the Oct.7 attack.

COGAT did not respond to a request for comment.

NETANYAHU SAYS NO ALTERNATIVE TO RAFAH GROUND INVASION

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he remains determined to carry out a ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite the misgivings of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Netanyahu told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that he would wait to hear proposals from the U.S. “out of respect to the president” about ways to protect the civilian population in Rafah before ordering the operation.

But he said he does not see any alternative to a ground offensive if Israel is to carry out its goal of destroying the Hamas militant group’s remaining battalions in Rafah.

“We have a debate with the Americans over the need to enter Rafah, not over the need to eliminate Hamas,” Netanyahu said. “We are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion.”

Israel says that Rafah, located on the Egyptian border, is Hamas’ last major stronghold in Gaza. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians, over half of Gaza’s population, are now huddled in Rafah after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the territory.

U.S. officials say they will not support a Rafah operation without the Israelis presenting a credible plan to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians. Israel has yet to present such a plan, according to White House officials.

On Monday, Netanyahu agreed to send a team of Israeli officials to Washington to discuss a prospective Rafah operation with the U.S. The decision took place during Netanyahu and Biden’s first conversation in over a month.

GAZA AID RESTRICTIONS COULD AMOUNT TO WAR CRIME, UN HUMAN RIGHTS CHIEF SAYS

GENEVA —The U.N. human rights chief says Israel’s restrictions on aid entering Gaza and its conduct of war against Hamas could amount to use of starvation as a “method of war, which is a war crime.”

Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, made the comments in a statement from his office a day after the world community’s authority on food crises said famine was “imminent” in war-battered northern Gaza in particular.

“The projected imminent famine in Gaza can and must be prevented,” Türk said. He said law and order was breaking down, and people were forced to “coping strategies” in the midst of a lack of food.

“The extent of Israel’s continued restrictions on the entry of aid into Gaza, together with the manner in which it continues to conduct hostilities, may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war, which is a war crime,” he said.

He said “the clock is ticking” and called on everyone in the international community — “especially those with influence” — to insist that Israel facilitate the unimpeded entry of aid into Gaza to avert the risk of famine.

Türk reiterated his calls for an immediate ceasefire and the unconditional release of Israeli hostages still in Gaza.

In a statement, Israel’s diplomatic mission in Geneva shot back, saying it had “sounded alarm bells for years on Hamas, its diversion of aid, and its use of the Palestinian people as human shields.”

It said that had been “ignored” by Türk, “who seeks once again to blame Israel for the situation and completely absolve the responsibility of the U.N. and Hamas.”

“Despite the rockets, the holding of our hostages, the acts of pure evil on Oct. 7, Israel is committed to facilitating humanitarian aid into Gaza. Israel is at war with Hamas, not the Palestinian people.

“Israel is doing everything it can to flood Gaza with aid, including by land air and sea,” the Israeli mission added. “The U.N. must also step up.”

HOUTHIS CLAIM LATEST ATTACK ON VESSEL IN GULF OF ADEN

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Tuesday claimed attacks targeting a vessel in the Gulf of Aden that had previously been targeted in the Red Sea.

In a prerecorded statement, Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said the rebels targeted the Mado, a liquified natural gas carrier. The vessel was twice targeted by Houthi fire on March 15 and March 17. Both attacks missed the vessel, causing neither damage nor injuries.

The Houthis have attacked ships since November, saying they want to force Israel to end its offensive in the Gaza Strip against Hamas.

The ships targeted by the Houthis, however, largely have had little or no connection to Israel, the U.S. or other nations involved in the war. The rebels have also fired missiles toward Israel, though they have largely fallen short or been intercepted.

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell contributed.

BAD WEATHER DELAYS DEPARTURE OF GAZA-BOUND AID SHIP

NICOSIA, Cyprus — World Central Kitchen says poor weather conditions are delaying the departure of a second ship to deliver some 240 tons of canned foods to Gaza.

The second vessel, called Jennifer, is ready to depart from the Cypriot port of Larnaca with food including beans, carrots, canned tuna, chickpeas, canned corn, parboiled rice, flour, oil and salt.

The U.S. charity said Tuesday the vessel will also carry 265 pounds (120 kg) of fresh dates from the United Arab Emirates which helped open the Cyprus-Gaza maritime route.

The Jennifer has two forklifts and a crane aboard to help offload cargo in future maritime deliveries to the Palestinian territory, as part of an operation the charity has named “Safeena,” meaning boat or vessel in Arabic.

The ship will be accompanied by a crew vessel with eight workers who will operate the forklifts and crane.

WCK said the first load of 200 tons that reached Gaza last week aboard the Open Arms vessel was delivered to the north of the territory with a U.N. World Food Program convoy on Tuesday.

The charity urged Arab countries to join with the UAE and Jordan to deliver food to Gaza by land, sea or air.

SENIOR HAMAS MILITANT AMONG THOSE KILLED IN HOSPITAL RAID, ISRAEL SAYS

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says it has killed more than 50 militants in its ongoing raid at the biggest hospital in the Gaza Strip.

The military said Tuesday that forces have arrested around 180 suspects. It was not possible to confirm whether those killed were combatants.

Israel launched the raid at Shifa Hospital overnight into Monday, saying Hamas had regrouped in the compound and was directing attacks from it. The military said gunmen fired on its forces from inside and that one of its soldiers was killed during the raid.

The army said it killed a senior Hamas militant who was armed and hiding inside the hospital. Palestinian officials said he was a senior commander in the Hamas-run police who was coordinating the protection of convoys.

The army last raided Shifa Hospital in November after claiming that Hamas maintained an elaborate command center within and beneath the facility.

The military revealed a tunnel leading to some underground rooms, as well as weapons it said were found inside the hospital. But the evidence fell short of the earlier claims, and critics accused the army of recklessly endangering the lives of civilians.

Shifa, like most of Gaza’s hospitals, has mostly stopped functioning for lack of electricity, fuel and supplies. Gaza’s Health Ministry said around 30,000 Palestinians were sheltering there at the time of this week’s raid.

GAZA HEALTH MINISTRY RAISES PALESTINIAN DEATH TOLL TO MORE THAN 31,800

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Gaza’s Health Ministry says 93 bodies have been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, bringing the Palestinian death toll from the Israel-Hamas war to 31,819.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its figures but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed. The Israeli military says it has killed over 13,000 militants, without providing evidence.

Israel launched its offensive against Hamas after Palestinian militants stormed across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and dragging around 250 hostages back to Gaza.

Palestinian health officials say at least 15 people were killed in Israeli strikes late Monday in the southern city of Rafah, where Israel has vowed to expand its ground offensive. An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies, from four separate strikes, at a nearby hospital. One of the strikes killed a man, his wife and their three children.

Israel blames the civilian death toll on Hamas because it fights in dense, residential neighborhoods. The military rarely comments on individual strikes, which often kill women and children.

QATARI OFFICIALS ARE ‘CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC’ AFTER CEASE-FIRE TALKS WITH ISRAEL’S INTELLIGENCE CHIEF

DOHA, Qatar — Israel’s intelligence chief has left Doha after talks aimed at trying to reach a cease-fire, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said Tuesday at a news conference, adding that Qatari officials were “cautiously optimistic” about the negotiations.

Al-Ansari said Mossad chief David Barnea had left Qatar already. He said technical negotiations between Israel and Hamas were ongoing, with Qatar carrying messages between the parties.

“I don’t think we’re at a moment now where we can say that we are close to a deal,” al-Ansari said. “It’s still too early to announce any successes.”

He stressed that any Israeli ground operation in Rafah would be a “catastrophe” and could set back any talks.

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Associated Press writer Lujain Jo contributed.

INCOMING PALESTINIAN PRIME MINISTER LAYS OUT HIS PLANS FOR GOVERNMENTAL REFORM

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The incoming Palestinian prime minister says he will appoint a technocratic government and establish an independent trust fund to oversee Gaza’s reconstruction.

In a mission statement acquired Tuesday by The Associated Press, Mohammad Mustafa laid out wide-ranging plans for the kind of revitalized Palestinian Authority called for by the United States as part of its postwar vision for resolving the conflict. But the Palestinian Authority has no power in Gaza, from which Hamas drove its forces in 2007, and only limited authority in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

In his mission statement, Mustafa said he would appoint a “non-partisan, technocratic government that can gain both the trust of our people and the support of the international community.” He promised wide-ranging reforms of PA institutions and a “zero tolerance” policy toward corruption and said he would seek to reunify the territories and create an “independent, competent and transparent agency for Gaza’s recovery and reconstruction and an internationally managed trust fund to raise, manage and disburse the required funds.”

The vision statement made no mention of Hamas, which won a landslide victory the last time Palestinians held national elections, in 2006, and which polls indicate still has significant support.

Mustafa said the PA aims to hold presidential and parliamentary elections, but he did not give a timetable and said it would depend on “realities on the ground” in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war that the Palestinians want for their future state.

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