Deadly fighting is raging in the Gaza Strip where the UN agency for aid to the Palestinians is at the heart of a controversy, with the European Union calling for an audit on Monday after accusations of the possible participation of some of its members to Hamas’s attack on Israel.
Fears of an extension of the conflict resurfaced after the death of three American soldiers killed in Jordan in a drone attack, blamed by Washington on groups supported by Iran. This is the first time that American soldiers have been killed in the Middle East since the start of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement.
The attack comes as the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which provides vital aid to Palestinians in Gaza, is in turmoil over the alleged involvement of twelve of its employees in the bloody Hamas attack on October 7.
The European Union asked UNRWA on Monday “to accept that an audit be carried out by independent experts, chosen by the European Commission,” said its spokesperson Eric Mamer.
The UN agency opened an investigation on Friday after accusations from Israel, but several key contributors suspended their funding, despite the UN secretary-general’s call to ensure the continuation of its essential operations for the population.
The unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP count based on official Israeli figures.
In response, Israel vowed to “annihilate” the Islamist movement – which it classifies as terrorist like the United States and the European Union – and launched a vast military operation in Gaza, which left 26,422 dead, the vast majority women, children and adolescents, according to the latest report on Sunday from the Hamas Ministry of Health.
Behind the scenes, negotiations continue to establish a new truce. US intelligence chief William Burns met senior Egyptian, Israeli and Qatari officials in Paris on Sunday. Israel reported “constructive” discussions, while stressing that there are “still differences” and that further talks were expected in the coming days.
A security source confirmed to AFP that President Biden had sent Mr. Burns to negotiate the release of the last Israeli hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a cease-fire.
Qatar, Egypt and the United States negotiated the first truce at the end of November. Around a hundred of the approximately 250 people kidnapped in Israel on October 7 were then released, in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
According to Israeli authorities, 132 hostages are still held in the territory, including 28 presumed dead.
The proposed agreement would involve a two-month truce and the release of all hostages against Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, the New York Times.
“Spiral of violence”
At 115e day of war, Hamas’ health ministry said Monday that at least 140 people were killed in nighttime strikes in Khan Younes, Gaza City and other areas.
According to the Israeli army, its soldiers killed “dozens of armed terrorists during fighting in central Gaza” where large quantities of weapons were found.
In Khan Younes, considered a stronghold of the Islamist movement, “very violent” fighting is raging in the west and in the city center, according to witnesses.
On Sunday, fighting took place around the Nasser and al-Amal hospitals, which are only partially functioning and shelter thousands of refugees fleeing the shooting.
More than 1.3 million Gazans displaced by the conflict, according to the UN, are massed in Rafah, in the far south of the territory against the closed border with Egypt.
According to Gaza Civil Defense spokesman Mahmud Bassal, hundreds of tents housing displaced people were flooded by the heavy rains that fell on Gaza overnight, worsening their already very precarious living conditions.
On the Israeli side, demonstrators on Monday blocked the entry of humanitarian aid trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing point, near Rafah, demanding that the aid, delivered in dribs and drabs, not reach Gaza until the hostages are not released.
In an explosive regional context, three American soldiers were killed and 34 injured in a drone attack in northeastern Jordan near the border with Syria and Iraq, Washington announced on Sunday, designating pro-groups Iran as responsible and assuring that they would be “accountable”.
These Iraqi factions are part of what Iran presents as the “axis of resistance” against Israel which includes Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah and groups in Syria.
Tehran refuted any involvement in the attack which Iraq condemned on Monday, calling for “stopping the spiral of violence” in the Middle East.
In Syria, six people, including pro-Iranian fighters, were killed in an Israeli strike in southern Damascus, according to a local NGO.