Rare day of relative calm as Gaza sees ‘tactical pause’ for aid

Gaza saw its first day of relative calm in months Sunday, after Israel’s military said it would “pause” fighting daily around a southern route to facilitate aid flows, following repeated UN warnings of famine in the Palestinian territory.

“Compared with the previous days, today, the first day of Eid al-Adha, is considered near calm and the calm has prevailed across all of Gaza,” Mahmud Basal, spokesman for the civil defence agency in Hamas-ruled Gaza, told AFP.

He said the exceptions included “some targeting” in Gaza City’s Shujaiya and Zeitun areas, as well as Israeli artillery fire in Rafah, southern Gaza.

AFP correspondents in Gaza’s north and centre reported no fighting on Sunday morning, though they reported some shelling and at least one strike in Rafah and an air strike in central Gaza during the early evening.

Children were among the wounded and killed from that strike on Bureij refugee camp, AFP images showed. A medic rapidly pounded the chest of one patient, attempting resuscitation, as an ambulance arrived at hospital in Deir al-Balah city.

The military stressed in a statement there was “no cessation of hostilities in the southern Gaza Strip”, and said one soldier died Sunday during fighting in the territory’s south.

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.

It was one of the heaviest losses for the army in more than eight months of war against Hamas militants.

– ‘Sudden calm’ –

“Since this morning, we’ve felt a sudden calm with no gunfire or bombings… It’s strange,” said Haitham al-Ghura, 30, from Gaza City.

The United Nations welcomed the Israeli move, although “this has yet to translate into more aid reaching people in need”, said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

He called for “further concrete measures by Israel to address longstanding issues” on aid needs.

Gazans “urgently need food, water, sanitation, shelter, and health care, with many living near piles of solid waste, heightening health risks,” Laerke said.

“We need to be able to deliver aid safely throughout Gaza,” he added.

Dire shortages of food and other essentials in the Gaza Strip have been exacerbated by overland access restrictions and the closure of the key Rafah crossing with Egypt since Israeli forces seized its Palestinian side in early May.

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

The pause “for humanitarian purposes will take place from 8:00 am (0500 GMT) until 7:00 pm (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.

Overall calm continued in most of Gaza at the end of Sunday’s pause, an AFP correspondent said.

A map released by the army showed the declared humanitarian route extending until Rafah’s European Hospital, about 10 kilometres (six miles) from Kerem Shalom.

– Sombre Eid –

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

“We don’t have the joy we usually have” for Eid, said Umm Muhammad al-Katri in northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp

“I came to the Eid prayers mourning. I’ve lost my son.”

The military said the pause was in effect as part of efforts to “increase the volumes of humanitarian aid” following discussions with the United Nations and other organisations.

The eight soldiers killed Saturday were hit by an explosion as they travelled in an armoured vehicle near Rafah, the military said. Troops were engaged in fierce street battles against Palestinian militants there.

Israel’s southern military commander, Major General Yaron Finkelman, told troops during a tour of Rafah on Sunday that they are “degrading” Hamas’s brigade there “and we will act and continue until we defeat it”.

Abu Obaida, spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, vowed to “continue our painful strikes against the enemy wherever it may be”.

– A ‘terrible loss’ –

The latest fatalities brought the Israeli military’s overall toll to 310 deaths since it began its ground offensive in Gaza on October 27.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his condolences on Saturday 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 Islamist group’s unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants 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 37,337 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.

The latest toll includes at least 41 deaths over the previous 24 hours, it said.

Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators have been pushing for a new Gaza truce, so far without success.

The only previous truce lasted one week in November and saw many hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, while increased aid flowed into Gaza.

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

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

In early November, the United States said Israel had agreed to humanitarian pauses of four hours. One such pause occurred on December 14, COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said at the time.

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