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Israel announces daily Gaza 'pause' for aid deliveries

GAZA STRIP: Israel's military said on Sunday it would "pause" fighting around a south Gaza route daily to facilitate aid deliveries, following months of warnings of famine in the besieged Palestinian territory.

The announcement of a "local, tactical pause of military activity" during daylight hours in an area of Rafah came a day after eight Israeli soldiers were killed in a blast near the far-southern city and three more troops died elsewhere, in one of the heaviest losses for the army in its war against Hamas fighters.

United Nations (UN) agencies and aid groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm of dire shortages of food and other essentials in the Gaza Strip, exacerbated by overland access restrictions and the closure of the key Rafah crossing with Egypt since Israeli forces seized it in early May.

Israel has long defended its efforts to let aid into Gaza including via its Kerem Shalom border near Rafah, blaming Palestinian fighters for looting supplies and humanitarian workers for failing to distribute them to civilians.

"A local, tactical pause of military activity for humanitarian purposes will take place from 8am (0500 GMT) until 7pm (1600 GMT) every day until further notice along the road that leads from the Kerem Shalom crossing to the Salah al-Din road and then northwards," a military statement said.

A map released by the army showed the declared humanitarian route extending until Rafah's European Hospital, about 10km from Kerem Shalom.

The announcement came as Muslims the world over mark Eid al-Adha, or the feast of the sacrifice.

"This Eid is completely different," said Umm Muhammad al-Katri in northern Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp.

"We've lost many people, there's a lot of destruction. We don't have the joy we usually have," she told AFP.

Instead of a cheerful holiday spirit, "I came to the Eid prayers mourning. I've lost my son."

AFP correspondents in Gaza said there were no reports of strikes, shelling or fighting on Sunday morning, though the military stressed in a statement there was "no cessation of hostilities in the southern Gaza Strip".

The military said the pause was already in effect and part of efforts to "increase the volumes of humanitarian aid" following discussions with the UN and other organisations.

The United States, which has been pressing close ally Israel as well as Hamas to accept a ceasefire plan laid out by President Joe Biden, on Friday imposed sanctions on an extremist Israeli group for blocking and attacking Gaza-bound aid convoys.

The military said the eight soldiers killed Saturday were hit by an explosion as they were travelling in an armoured vehicle near Rafah, where troops were engaged in fierce street battles against Palestinian fighters.

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the blast was "apparently from an explosive device planted in the area or from the firing of an anti-tank missile".

Separately, two soldiers were killed in fighting in northern Gaza and another succumbed to wounds inflicted in recent fighting.

Abu Obaida, spokesman for Hamas' military wing, vowed to "continue our painful strikes against the enemy wherever it may be".

Saturday's heavy losses brought the Israeli military's overall toll to 309 deaths since it began its ground offensive in Gaza on Oct 27.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his condolences following "this terrible loss" and said that "despite the heavy and unsettling price, we must cling to the goals of the war".

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas following the Palestinian group's unprecedented Oct 7 attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The group also seized 251 hostages. Of these, 116 remain in Gaza, although the army says 41 are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,296 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.

World Food Programme deputy executive director Carl Skau said recently that "with lawlessness inside the Strip... and active conflict", it has become "close to impossible to deliver the level of aid that meets the growing demands on the ground".

Group of Seven (G7) leaders on Friday said aid agencies must be allowed to work unhindered in Gaza, calling for the "rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need".

Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators have been pushing for a new Gaza truce since a one-week pause in November which also saw hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, and increased aid deliveries into the Palestinian territory.

Hamas has insisted on the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and a permanent ceasefire — demands Israel has repeatedly rejected.

US Secretary of State Blinken has said Israel backs the latest plan, but Netanyahu, whose far-right coalition partners are strongly opposed to a ceasefire, has not publicly endorsed it.

Israel's hardline National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Sunday the humanitarian pause announced by the military was part of a "crazy and delusional approach".

As diplomatic efforts have stalled, fears of the war spilling over into a broader Middle East conflict have been rekindled by an escalation of tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Lebanese group Hizbollah, a Hamas ally.

Hizbollah said intense strikes since Wednesday were retaliation for Israel's killing of one of its commanders.

Israeli forces responded with air strike and shelling across the border, the military said.

The two top UN officials in Lebanon called on all sides to cease fire.

"The danger of miscalculation leading to a sudden and wider conflict is very real," they said in a joint statement. — AFP

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