The U.S. is taking its toughest position yet regarding Gaza as it pushes for a vote Friday on a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for “an immediate and sustained cease-fire” in the Israel-Hamas war without tying it to the release of hostages.

The resolution is in keeping with the Biden administration’s rift with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has insisted on the need to bring a military offensive into the overcrowded southern Gaza city of Rafah. The U.S. and humanitarian organizations have warned that could be catastrophic for the estimated 1.4 million people sheltering there.

A new draft resolution obtained Thursday by The Associated Press refers to the “imperative” of a truce to protect civilians and allow for the flow of humanitarian aid to a territory of 2.3 million Palestinians grappling with severe food shortages. In the past, the U.S. conditioned a cease-fire request on the release of captives held in Gaza, but the new language merely supports diplomatic efforts to that end.

Earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Cairo that “gaps are narrowing” between Israel and Hamas on a deal for an extended truce, and that an “agreement is very much possible,” although obstacles remain. He also warned an Israeli invasion of Rafah would be a “mistake.”

As a possible sign of progress in cease-fire talks, Netanyahu’s office said David Barnea, head of the Mossad spy agency, will head back to Qatar on Friday to resume negotiations mediated among others by CIA chief William Burns.

After convening Thursday with leaders of Middle East countries to talk about the war, regional stability and the future of Gaza, Blinken planned to visit Tel Aviv on Friday to meet with Netanyahu and his War Cabinet.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Blinken will discuss “the need to ensure the defeat of Hamas, including in Rafah, in a way that protects the civilian population, does not hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and advances Israel’s overall security.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, attends a meeting with Egyptian officials in Cairo on March 21, 2024.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, attends a meeting with Egyptian officials in Cairo on March 21, 2024.

Developments:

∎ Alternate efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza are welcome, but only the expansion of land crossings into Gaza can help prevent famine in the densely populated Palestinian enclave, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday.

∎ The Israeli military said it killed five Hamas senior officials in Rafah over the past week, aided by the Israel Security Agency and Military Intelligence.

∎ In briefing his Cabinet this week on his discussions with President Joe Biden, Netanyahu used the word “argument” for the first time, Israeli media reported. The hot topic was Israel’s planned offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, a plan adamantly opposed by the Biden administration and much of the world.

∎ After a severe equipment shortage at the beginning of the war, Israeli reservists do not trust the army to outfit them in the next escalation and are taking tactical uniforms, combat vests and weapons home with them, Israel’s Walla news reports.

Netanyahu speaks to GOP lawmakers: Prime minister vows to continue war in Gaza, criticizes Democratic leader

US spending bill extends pause on UNRWA funding for a year

The U.S. suspension in funding for UNRWA, the embattled United Nations agency for Palestinian relief, will be extended at least through March 2025 as part of the spending bill congressional negotiators agreed to Thursday.

In January, the Biden administration had paused the funding − the largest donation of any country, at around $300-$400 million a year − after Israel said at least 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 employees participated in the Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7.

Republicans pushed for an extension of the ban and achieved it over objections from opponents who said UNRWA’s ability to dispense humanitarian aid is irreplaceable, particularly at a time when so much of Gaza is confronting an acute hunger crisis.

“UNRWA is the primary means of distributing desperately-needed assistance in Gaza – so denying funding for UNRWA is tantamount to denying food to starving people and restricting medical supplies to injured civilians,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said in a statement.

Latest postwar Gaza proposal could start with Rafah aid

A Wall Street Journal report Thursday detailed an Israeli plan that would provide Palestinian leaders and businessmen with no ties to Hamas key roles distributing aid in Gaza before installing them into a Palestinian-led governing authority. The report said an unnamed top Israeli defense official held talks with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to build momentum for the plan, which drew a fierce backlash from Hamas while reportedly creating divisions in Israel’s War Cabinet. Major hurdles include lack of support so far from Netanyahu as well as Hamas, the Journal said.

The proposed aid network would serve as a crucial element of Israel’s plan to evacuate noncombatants from Rafah ahead of the planned military offensive. The aid network would distribute food to up to a million people in displacement camps that Israel hopes will be built for those evacuating Rafah, the Journal said.

US aiming to beat May 1 target for Gaza aid pier

The temporary pier the U.S. plans to build to bring humanitarian aid from ships into Gaza may be ready before May 1, an American official said Thursday.

“The U.S. military is doing everything they can to accelerate the deployment of this capability, to make it operational prior to the May 1 target date that they’ve set,” Curtis Ried, chief of staff of the National Security Council, told reporters in Cyprus.

Though it’s much more efficient to transport food, water and other necessities into war-ravaged Gaza by land, Israeli restrictions and other impediments have limited how much assistance is getting to a territory where half the population is facing what the U.N. deems as “catastrophic” levels of hunger. Concerns about famine are especially high in the battered northern Gaza.

World Central Kitchen, the charity founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres, recently built a makeshift jetty from rubble in central Gaza, allowing its first shipment with 200 tons of food supplies to be carried into the enclave last week. The U.S. pier − to be built by more than 1,000 troops − is expected to have the capacity to accommodate larger ships with bigger loads. The Pentagon said March 8 that construction could take up to 60 days, but that timeframe may be shortened.

“They are working very hard to advance that,” Ried said.

Most Palestinians want Hamas in charge when war ends

More than 70% of Palestinians supportHamas’ decision to launch the Oct. 7 offensive into Israel that started the war, and 59% of them want Hamas to control the Gaza Strip when the war is over, according to a new survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Only 27% of Palestinians would prefer control by any version of the Palestinian Authority, a plan backed by the Biden administration.

However, support for Hamas is dropping. When asked which political party or political trend they support, the largest percentage selected Hamas (34%), followed by Fatah (17%). Three months ago, 43% supported Hamas and 17% selected Fatah, the controlling party of the Palestinian Authority. Six months ago, before the war, support for Hamas stood at 22% and support for Fatah at 26%.

The survey showed 94% of Palestinians believe Israel has committed war crimes during the current war while just 5% believe Hamas has done so. Only 44% of Gazans say they have enough food for a day or two and 55% say they do not. The survey of 1,580 adults included 830 interviewed in the West Bank, 750 in Gaza. It did not include Palestinians living in the most most besieged areas of northern Gaza.

35% of Gaza buildings damaged in war

At least 35% of all buildings in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed since Israel’s counterattack began hours after the Hamas attack Oct. 7, according to a United Nations Satellite Center assessment. The center said of the 88,868 damaged structures, 31,198 were destroyed. This analysis, based on very high-resolution satellite imagery collected Feb. 29, reveals a “significant increase” in destruction compared to previous assessments, including the one in early January.

The governorates of Khan Younis and Gaza City have experienced the most significant rise in damage: Khan Younis has seen 12,279 additional damaged structures and Gaza City has experienced 2,010. Khan Younis has been hit particularly hard: 6,663 new structures have been destroyed. The update provides an estimate of 121,400 housing units impacted by the destruction in the Gaza Strip.

Contributing: Reuters

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israeli war updates: US pushes cease-fire resolution at UN

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