The Latest | Blinken says he’ll talk with Israelis about alternatives to Rafah ground assault

Mourners pray on the bodies of, from left, Ahmad Abu Ali, 22, wrapped with an Islamic Jihad flag, Eyad Azmi, 19, wrapped with an Islamic Jihad flag, Nidal Abu Obeid, 23, wrapped with a Palestinian flag and Abdullah Qeissi, 20, wrapped with an Islamic Jihad flag, during their funerals in the West Bank refugee camp of Nour Shams, Tulkarem, Thursday, March 21, 2024. The military said that the two posed a threat to its forces, which were operating in the Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem. The Palestinian Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service both said four people were killed in Nur Shams, including the two killed in the airstrike, without saying whether they were civilians or combatants. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Mourners pray on the bodies of, from left, Ahmad Abu Ali, 22, wrapped with an Islamic Jihad flag, Eyad Azmi, 19, wrapped with an Islamic Jihad flag, Nidal Abu Obeid, 23, wrapped with a Palestinian flag and Abdullah Qeissi, 20, wrapped with an Islamic Jihad flag, during their funerals in the West Bank refugee camp of Nour Shams, Tulkarem, Thursday, March 21, 2024. The military said that the two posed a threat to its forces, which were operating in the Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem. The Palestinian Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service both said four people were killed in Nur Shams, including the two killed in the airstrike, without saying whether they were civilians or combatants. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he will share alternatives to Israel’s planned ground assault into the southern Gaza town of Rafah when he meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his War Cabinet on Friday.

Blinken and Arab leaders on Thursday discussed efforts for a cease-fire and ideas for Gaza’s post-conflict future during his sixth visit to the region since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Growing disagreements between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden over Israel’s prosecution of the war will likely overshadow this week’s talks, although the Biden administration policy of providing crucial military aid and diplomatic support for Israel remains unchanged.

The Health Ministry in Gaza raised the territory’s death toll Thursday to nearly 32,000 Palestinians. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead. The international community’s authority on determining the severity of hunger crises has 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 abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

Currently:

— Blinken huddles on Gaza with Arab diplomats in Cairo as U.S.-Israel relations sour

— Why Israel is so determined to launch an offensive in Rafah.

— A Palestinian boy is shot dead after he lit a firework. Israel’s use of deadly force is scrutinized.

— U.N. chief urges the EU to avoid “ double standards ” over Gaza and Ukraine.

— U.S. House speaker says he plans to invite Netanyahu to address the Congress.

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

Here’s the latest:

U.S. CALLS FOR A U.N. VOTE ON A STRONGER GAZA CEASE-FIRE RESOLUTION

UNITED NATIONS — The United States called for a vote to be held Friday on a newly revised and tougher U.N. Security Council resolution declaring that “an immediate and sustained cease-fire” in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza is “imperative” to protect civilians and enable humanitarian aid to be delivered to more than two million hungry Palestinians.

In the previous draft, the Security Council did not make such a declaration. Instead, it would have supported international efforts for a cease-fire as part of a hostage deal.

The new draft obtained Thursday by The Associated Press “determines” — which is a council order — “the imperative of an immediate and sustained cease-fire,” with no direct link to the release of hostages taken during Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7. But it would unequivocally support diplomatic efforts “to secure such a cease-fire in connection with the release of all remaining hostages.”

After the 15 Security Council members met behind closed doors Thursday afternoon to discuss Gaza, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said when asked if the U.S. draft will be adopted: “I am optimistic. That’s why it took us so long.”

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Dmitry Polyansky told reporters that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is pressing for an immediate cease-fire, and if the resolution calls for an immediate cease-fire “we will, of course, support it.”

But he questioned the wording of the U.S. draft, asking, “What’s an imperative? I have an imperative to give you $100, but … it’s only an imperative, not $100.”

“So somebody’s fooling around, I think, (with the) international community,” Polyansky said. “We are not satisfied with anything that doesn’t call for immediate cease-fire. I think everybody is not satisfied with this. Even secretary Blinken is not satisfied.”

ISRAEL’S RAID ON SHIFA HOSPITAL NETS 350 MILITANT ARRESTS, ARMY SAYS

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says 350 Palestinian militants were among the 500 people it has arrested in an open-ended raid on Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza, where soldiers are clearing out patients from the emergency room.

Israel also says it has killed dozens of militants in the operation, however there was no way to independently confirm if the dead or detained were combatants. Israeli troops entered Gaza’s largest hospital complex on Monday, months after an earlier operation at the facility, claiming Hamas had regrouped there.

Army spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told a news conference Thursday that the operation will continue for “a number of days.”

Hagari says troops have arrested over 500 suspects – and identified some 358 militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hagari says many had surrendered and had given “very valuable information” to interrogators. The claim could not be independently verified.

He also said that militants had barricaded themselves inside hospital buildings, including an area near the emergency room. He said some 220 patients were being moved to other areas of the hospital compound while troops operated.

Hagari says troops are conducting sweeps throughout the sprawling compound. “There will be continuing battles. This operation will go on for a number of days.”

The raid was a new blow to the Shifa medical complex, which had only partially resumed operations after a destructive Israeli raid in November.

HEAD OF ISRAEL’S MOSSAD SPY AGENCY WILL RETURN TO QATAR FOR CEASE-FIRE TALKS

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office says the head of the Mossad spy agency will return to Qatar on Friday to meet with the head of the CIA and other key mediators as part of ongoing cease-fire talks.

The office said Thursday that Qatar’s prime minister and Egypt’s intelligence chief would also join the talks.

The announcement came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the region pushing ahead with efforts to pause the war between Israel and Hamas, now in its sixth month. Blinken is expected in Israel on Friday.

Qatar, the U.S. and Egypt have been trying to broker a deal that would pause the fighting between Israel and Hamas for at least six weeks.

During that time, Hamas would release some of the more than 100 hostages it is holding in Gaza. Israel would release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it is holding and it would allow more aid to enter the war-battered Gaza Strip.

HEAD OF W.H.O. SAYS 60% OF GAZA KIDS UNDER AGE 5 ARE MALNOURISHED, UP FROM 1% BEFORE THE WAR

GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization said so little food has been allowed into Gaza that up to 60% of children under five are now malnourished, compared with fewer than 1% before the war began.

At a press briefing on Thursday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “virtually all households are already skipping meals.”

“The future of an entire generation is in serious peril,” he said, adding that children in Gaza need therapeutic food aimed at their needs.

Despite the supplies of this specialized food in the region, Tedros said it could not be allocated due to security problems. He welcomed the recent air and sea deliveries of aid, but said the only way to dramatically boost the delivery of food to Gaza was through land deliveries.

Tedros said WHO was also troubled by the latest siege of Shifa Hospital in Gaza, saying reports of health workers being arrested and delayed had added to security worries. A planned UN mission there was recently cancelled, he said.

Dr. Rik Peeperkorn, WHO’s representative to the occupied Palestinian territory, said he had never seen so many severe trauma injuries or amputations involving children as he had during recent trips to Gaza. He said the process to evacuate patients requiring urgent medical care like cancer treatment and dialysis abroad was failing, even as countries including Egypt and members of the European Union had agreed to accept patients.

“We need to get them out,” he said. “These patients deserve better.”

ISRAELI MILITARY INVESTIGATES TROOPS’ FATAL SHOOTING OF PALESTINIAN WHO HAD CONVERTED TO JUDAISM

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military has opened an investigation after its forces in the occupied West Bank fatally shot a Palestinian man who had converted to Judaism.

The military says its soldiers shot the man at an intersection Thursday after he “aroused suspicion.” But Israeli settlers say the man was well known and had good relations with them.

Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Jewish community in the flashpoint city of Hebron, identified the man as 62-year-old David Ben Abraham. He says Ben Abraham was a Palestinian Muslim from Hebron who had converted to Judaism in 2019. Previously his name was Sameh Zaytoun.

Arnon says he and other members of Hebron’s ultranationalist Jewish community supported Ben Abraham on his conversion journey and unsuccessfully tried to help him obtain Israeli citizenship.

Arnon says Ben Abraham was regularly threatened by the Palestinian Authority for his religious beliefs, including being held in Palestinian jails for months at a time. “Unfortunately he was a wanderer between worlds and never found his place,” Arnon said. “Even now, he’s still between worlds, because I’m not sure where we will bury him.”

The circumstances of the shooting remained unclear. Israeli media reported that Ben Abraham had his hands raised when he was shot. The army called it a “severe incident” and immediately opened an investigation.

The military says it holds its soldiers accountable for violations of open-fire orders. But rights groups say that investigations into the shootings of Palestinians almost never lead to indictments, much less convictions.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, violence in the West Bank has surged. The Palestinian Health Ministry says at least 440 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the war’s start.

U.S. WANTS A SWIFT U.N. VOTE ON ITS NEW GAZA CEASE-FIRE RESOLUTION

UNITED NATIONS – The United States is seeking a swift vote on a newly revised and tougher U.N. Security Council resolution demanding “an immediate and sustained cease-fire” in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza to protect civilians and enable humanitarian aid deliveries for more than 2 million hungry Palestinians.

In the previous draft, the council would not have demanded a cease-fire. Instead, it would have supported international efforts for a cease-fire as part of a hostage deal.

The new draft obtained Thursday by The Associated Press “determines” — which is a council order — “the imperative of an immediate and sustained cease-fire” with no direct link to the release of hostages taken during Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

The earlier draft was not widely supported in the 15-member council where 13 members had voted in favor of an Arab-backed resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza that the U.S. vetoed on Feb. 20.

The new U.S. draft states in strong language that the Security Council “determines the imperative of an immediate and sustained cease-fire,” with no direct link to the release of hostages taken during Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood told reporters who asked Thursday when a vote would take place, “We would like to do it as soon as possible … maybe before the end of the week.”

“We think it is a good text. Everyone should be able to get behind it,” Wood said. “And we’re going to continue to work to the last minute to make sure that we get as many votes as possible.”

Meanwhile, the 10 elected members of the Security Council have been drafting their own resolution which would demand an immediate humanitarian cease-fire for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which began March 10 “respected by all parties leading to a permanent sustainable cease-fire.” It also demands “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.”

ARREST WARRANTS ISSUED FOR TWO LEBANESE CITIZENS IN CONNECTION WITH TARGETED KILLING OF HAMAS OFFICIAL

BEIRUT— Judicial officials in Lebanon say an investigative judge has issued arrest warrants for two people on suspicion of giving information to Israel including the digital mapping of a Beirut street where a top official with the Palestinian Hamas group was killed in January.

The officials said Thursday that Fadi Sawwan, the investigative judge at the military tribunal, issued the arrest warrants earlier this week for the two Lebanese citizens weeks after they were detained while using sophisticated digital mapping equipment.

The Israeli military did not immediately return requests for comment.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the two men had earlier mapped streets in different parts of Lebanon including Beirut’s southern suburbs that are home to the leadership of the militant Hezbollah group. They said the men said they thought they were sending the information to a U.S.-based company that does virtual tourism business.

The two officials said among the streets that they mapped was the one where the deputy leader of Hamas, Saleh Arouri, was killed along with six other militants in a January strike that hit an apartment. They said the street was mapped nearly two weeks before Arouri was killed.

The officials said the two are in custody and were charged with spying for a foreign country and obtaining information that should remain secret because of national security. The officials said the two could get a sentence of up to life in prison.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed.

U.S. HOUSE SPEAKER SAYS HE PLANS TO INVITE NETANYAHU TO GIVE SPEECH TO CONGRESS

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Mike Johnson says he is planning to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the U.S. Congress.

“I would love to have him come in and address a joint session of Congress,” Johnson said Thursday morning on CNBC. “We’ll certainly extend that invitation.”

Johnson said it would be “a great honor of mine” to invite him but “we’re just trying to work out schedules on all this.”

U.S. Republicans have rallied around Netanyahu after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for new elections in Israel on the Senate floor last week. Schumer said he believes that the prime minister has “lost his way” and is an obstacle to peace in the region amid the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Johnson spoke with Netanyahu Wednesday morning. He told reporters afterward that he had a “lengthy conversation” with the prime minister. “I reiterated to him the House Republican’s strong support for Israel in their efforts there,” Johnson said.

Netanyahu spoke by video with Senate Republicans at their weekly caucus lunch on Wednesday, telling them that he believes he still has support in the United States and Israel and that he believes Schumer’s remarks were inappropriate.

Johnson’s invitation comes as there is an ongoing case at the top United Nations court in which South Africa accuses Netanyahu’s government of breaching the Genocide Convention with its war in Gaza against Hamas. The court in December ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza. Israel strongly denies breaching the convention.

COMMERCIAL SHIPS WILL TRANSPORT AID TO GAZA, U.S. OFFICIAL SAYS

LARNACA, Cyprus – A senior U.S. official says commercial ships will be employed to convey humanitarian aid from Cyprus once a U.S. built-pier and floating dock are completed by the May 1 target date.

National Security Council Chief Curtis Ried told reporters Thursday the United Nations and its humanitarian agencies including world body’s relief agency for Palestinians UNRWA remain “the best method that we have to deliver assistance” to the territory.

Speaking during a Cyprus-hosted meeting of officials from 35 nations interested to contribute in the effort, Ried said currently, there’s no way to substitute the UNRWA’s distribution network in Gaza quickly, but it may be replaced “over time.”

He said U.S. troops will not be deployed to Gaza to provide security. Instead, Israeli forces will provide an outer security perimeter and that officials are currently in discussions with third nations to possibly offer troops to secure aid deliveries in the immediate vicinity of the pier.

The U.N. in partnership with Cyprus will coordinate collection of goods donated by third countries to ensure the appropriate kind of help reaches those who need it most.

A fund is currently being set up for that purpose.

The aid will be security screened in Cyprus according to established protocols in cooperation with Israeli officials and then be shipped to a floating dock some miles off the Gaza coast before being transferred on land via the pier.

The aid will then be loaded onto Palestinian trucks and distributed according to the U.N. network in Gaza.

Between now and May 1, the U.S. charity World Central Kitchen founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres will continue to ship aid to Gaza through its own jetty. The charity sent its first batch of 200 tons of aid last week with a boat owned by the Spanish aid group Open Arms. A second ship is ready to depart once weather conditions off Gaza improve later this week or early next week, according to Cyprus Foreign Minister Constantinos Combos.

Ried said the U.S. was primarily focused on expanding overland aid deliveries, but that changed with the new year when U.S. President Joe Biden decided to also pursue the maritime corridor alternative.

DUTCH POLICE SAY A ‘BURNING OBJECT’ THROWN AT ISRAELI EMBASSY, SUSPECT ARRESTED

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Police in The Hague say that somebody threw a “burning object” at the Israeli Embassy in the Dutch city and that they arrested a suspect.

The embassy said in a statement posted on its Facebook side that it is “unacceptable that such an attack can happen in the Netherlands.”

It said that nobody was injured in the attack Thursday.

“We trust that the authorities will take all possible measures to prevent such attacks,” it added.

The embassy says that the attack “demonstrates the dangerous consequences of the worrying trend of growing hate and incitement. This hate cannot be tolerated.”

Police did not release any information about the suspect.

BLINKEN MEETS WITH EGYPT’S PRESIDENT ON HIS SIXTH MIDEAST TRIP SINCE THE ISRAEL-HAMAS WAR BEGAN

CAIRO — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Cairo and met with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Thursday during his sixth trip to the Middle East since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Blinken was in Saudi Arabia the day before, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A senior State Department official traveling with Blinken said the Saudi talks focused on the bilateral portion of a larger plan in which Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel in return for credible progress on the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel’s current government is staunchly opposed to Palestinian statehood, which Saudis have said is an essential component to any normalization agreement.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic talks, says only a “handful of issues” remain in the U.S.-Saudi component of the plan. That part of the plan is widely believed to include U.S. defense guarantees and aid in building a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia.

Blinken was set to meet with Arab foreign ministers later Thursday to discuss broader security assurances for Israel — another component of the broader plan — and an Arab role in governing and rebuilding postwar Gaza.

Blinken will travel to Israel on Friday for talks expected to focus on efforts to broker a deal on a cease-fire and the release of hostages, as well as U.S. concerns about Israel’s plans to expand its ground offensive to the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Those talks will also focus on increasing humanitarian aid to Gaza.

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AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed.

HEALTH MINISTRY RAISES DEATH TOLL IN GAZA TO NEARLY 32,000 PALESTINIANS

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Gaza’s Health Ministry says the overall Palestinian death toll from the Israel-Hamas war has climbed to nearly 32,000.

The ministry says 31,988 Palestinians have been killed since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack triggered the war, and another 74,188 Palestinians have been wounded. It says 65 bodies have been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, as well as 92 wounded people.

The ministry does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its figures, but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed.

Israel’s military says it has killed over 13,000 militants, without providing evidence.

The Gaza Health Ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government, maintains detailed casualty records. Its figures from previous wars largely matched those of United Nations bodies, independent experts and even the Israeli military’s tallies.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostage after storming across the border into southern Israel on Oct. 7. More than 100 hostages were freed in November in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

ISRAELI ACTIVISTS LAUNCH CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN FOR SANCTIONED SETTLER’S BROTHER

JERUSALEM — Israeli activists have launched an online fundraiser that mentions the family of an extremist settler sanctioned by United States President Joe Biden’s administration for alleged attacks on Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists.

The campaign appears to be an effort to skirt U.S. sanctions on violent Israeli settlers and the unauthorized settlement outposts where they live. The sanctions prevent settlers from accessing the American financial system and expose them to an asset freeze.

The fundraiser does not directly mention the sanctioned settler, Moshe Sharvit, nor his outpost, but says it is raising money for “settlement activities” in memory of his brother, who was killed in fighting in Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The page says the funds are to build a synagogue, educational center and facility for Torah study in the Jordan Valley, where Sharvit’s sanctioned outpost is located.

Hosted on the Israeli crowdfunding site Givechak, the campaign raised over $875,000 from more than 10,500 donors as of Wednesday. The site is the latest in a string of online fundraising campaigns that have collected the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for settlers sanctioned by the U.S. and Britain. At least two crowdfunding pages for sanctioned settlers have now been taken down.

Sharvit and Givechak did not respond to requests for comment.

ISRAEL SAYS ITS AIRSTRIKE KILLED 2 MILITANTS IN THE WEST BANK

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says it launched an airstrike that killed two Palestinian militants during a raid in the West Bank.

The military said in a statement early Thursday that the two posed a threat to its forces, which were operating in the built-up Nur Shams refugee camp in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

The Palestinian Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service both said four people were killed in Nur Shams, including the two killed in the airstrike, without saying whether they were civilians or combatants. Hamas later identified all four of the Palestinians killed in Nur Shams as its fighters.

On Wednesday, a separate Israeli airstrike killed three Palestinian militants traveling in a car in the northern West Bank. The Islamic Jihad group claimed them as members.

Violence across the Israeli-occupied West Bank has surged since the Israel-Hamas war broke out last Oct. 7. Since then, at least 435 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli fire, according to Palestinian health officials.

The Palestinians seek an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

THE GAPS ARE NARROWING IN NEGOTIATIONS FOR A NEW ISRAEL-HAMAS CEASE-FIRE DEAL, BLINKEN SAYS

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the “gaps are narrowing” in indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over another cease-fire and hostage release.

The United States, Egypt and Qatar have spent several weeks trying to broker an agreement to pause the fighting in Gaza and bring about the release of more of the scores of hostages captured by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack that started the war.

Blinken’s sixth visit to the region since the start of the war began in Saudi Arabia and will take him to Egypt on Thursday and Israel on Friday. In an interview Wednesday with the Al-Hadath network in Saudi Arabia, Blinken said “the gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible.” He said the mediators worked with Israel to put a “strong proposal” on the table but that Hamas rejected it. But, he said, Hamas came back with other demands that the mediators are working on.

Hamas has demanded guarantees that any cease-fire agreement will lead to an end to the war and the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza, from which hundreds of thousands fled following Israeli evacuation orders in October. Israel has thus far rejected those demands, saying it is determined to renew its offensive after any cease-fire and continue fighting until it destroys Hamas.

Hamas is still believed to be holding around 100 hostages, as well as the remains of around 30 others. It hopes to exchange them for the release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

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