French President Emmanuel Macron was Tuesday set to become the first Western leader to meet both Israel’s premier and the Palestinian president, more than two weeks into the brutal Gaza conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.
As Israel battles Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas after suffering the worst attack in its 75-year history, Macron visited to express solidarity but also to stress the need to protect Gaza’s civilian population in the withering bombing campaign.
Hamas in its October 7 attack on southern Israel killed more than 1,400 people and took over 200 hostages, Israeli officials say. Retaliatory air and artillery strikes since then have killed over 5,000 in Gaza, according to the Hamas-ruled health ministry.
Israeli strikes on the besieged Gaza Strip overnight killed another 140 people, Hamas said after the militant group released two more of the Israeli and foreign hostages it abducted.
UN human rights chief Volker Turk on Monday urged an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” for Gaza where about half of the population of 2.4 million has been driven from their homes.
Macron, the latest of a string of Western leaders to visit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the US, British and German leaders went there, was the first who was also set to visit Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.
“The first objective we should have today is the release of all hostages, without any distinction, because this is an awful crime to play with the lives of children, adults, old people, civilians and soldiers,” Macron said after meeting Israel’s President Isaac Herzog.
“I want you to be sure that you’re not left alone in this war against terrorism,” Macron told Herzog.
Macron stressed that the campaign must be fought without “enlarging this conflict” as concern has grown about more of Israel’s enemies across the Middle East entering the war.
On his visit Macron will also propose relaunching a “genuine peace process”, with the aim of creating a viable Palestinian state in exchange for guarantees from regional powers towards “Israel’s security”, his office said.
Two more hostages freed
Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to destroy Hamas and warned of a looming ground invasion of Gaza, raising the spectre of heavy urban combat and heightening the risk for the hostages.
Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85 — who were freed late Monday and airlifted to an Israeli hospital to be reunited with family.
Hamas released them citing “compelling humanitarian” reasons, after mediation by Qatar and Egypt, but did not free their elderly husbands.
Their release came days after a US mother and her teenage daughter were also handed over to Israel.
Earlier in Washington, US President Joe Biden allowed for the possibility of a ceasefire if the others are freed, telling journalists that “we should have those hostages released and then we can talk”.
Lifshitz recounted the shock of her abduction by Hams gunmen, telling Israeli media: “They loaded me on a motorcycle sideways so I wouldn’t fall, with one terrorist holding me from the front and the other from behind.”
The Hamas surprise attack, which left Israel reeling and enraged, led it to launch operation “Swords of Iron” in which it has fired a near-continuous barrage of strikes on Gaza and called up more than 300,000 reservists.
Israel has cut off water, food, fuel and energy supplies to Gaza, and only a trickle of aid has been allowed to cross into Gaza from Egypt in recent days under a US-brokered deal.
The UN World Health Organization warned that more than one-third of Gaza’s hospitals are “not functioning” and limited fuel supplies were impacting the fleet of ambulances in the territory, where thousands have been injured.
While the Israeli military has claimed success in “eliminating high-ranking commanders” and destroying Hamas infrastructure, humanitarian groups have said that Palestinian civilians are paying too high a price.
Thousands of buildings have been levelled in the densely populated enclave, with entire city blocks reduced to rubble and many victims still feared buried beneath.
Gaza City resident Ayman Abu Shamalah was among the tens of thousands who heeded an Israeli warning to flee the north of the enclave, but this did not spare his family from tragedy.
An Israeli air strike on Rafah in southern Gaza killed his pregnant wife as well as their three-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, he told AFP tearfully.
“They put my son’s shattered body in a blue bag,” he said.
Israel has shown little sign of slowing its looming offensive, although the timing of an anticipated full-scale ground invasion remains unclear.
“We are well prepared for the ground operations in the south,” Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told troops.
“The Southern Command has quality operational plans. There are tactical, operative and strategic considerations that have provided additional time.”
Hamas has built a labyrinth of tunnels which the Israeli military has darkly dubbed the “Gaza Metro” and would be expected to meet invading forces with booby traps and surprise attacks, spelling costly house-to-house fighting.
There are also fears about how Hamas’s allies around the Middle East would respond to a ground war.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War has reported a rise in attacks on Israeli and US targets from Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
There have been daily exchanges of fire between Israel and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group.
At least 41 people have been killed in Lebanon, according to an AFP tally — mostly combatants but also at least four civilians, including a Reuters journalist.
And four people have been killed in Israel — three soldiers and a civilian.
The pace of evacuations has increased on both sides of the border, with the UN saying nearly 20,000 people had fled villages in south Lebanon as the fighting rages.
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