Israeli soldiers drive in their armored vehicles in southern Israel...

Israeli soldiers drive in their armored vehicles in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip during ongoing ground operations, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. Credit: AP/Tsafrir Abayov

A senior Hamas official said Friday the group will respond “very soon” to a proposal that includes extended pauses in Gaza fighting and phased exchanges of Hamas-held hostages for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

Hamas and other militants in Gaza are holding dozens of hostages, after having abducted about 250 during their deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and sparked Israel’s blistering offensive on the enclave. More than 100 hostages were released during a one-week truce in November, in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Over 27,000 people have been killed and 66,000 wounded by Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza, the territory's Health Ministry said Thursday. The Health Ministry does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths, but says most of those killed were women and children.

Israel’s war in Gaza threatens to spill over into neighboring countries, despite persistent efforts by top officials around the globe to tamp down regional tensions.

On Friday, the U.S. military began an air assault on sites in Iraq and Syria that are used by Iranian-back militias in retaliation to the drone strike that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan last weekend, officials told The Associated Press. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations not yet made public. The strikes come after President Joe Biden and other U.S. leaders warned the U.S. would strike back at the militias in what would be a “tiered response” over time.

Currently:

— U.S. begins airstrikes on militias in Iraq and Syria in retaliation to the fatal drone strike in Jordan, officials say.

Rubble from buildings destroyed in the Israeli Army's ground operation...

Rubble from buildings destroyed in the Israeli Army's ground operation in the Gaza Strip are seen from southern Israel, near the Gaza border fence, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Credit: AP/Tsafrir Abayov

— Analysis shows destruction and a possible buffer zone along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.

— Half of U.S. adults say Israel has gone too far in its war in Gaza, AP-NORC poll shows.

— A U.S. company says hostage-taking by gunmen at its factory in Turkey in Gaza protest has been resolved.

— Biden sanctions Israeli settlers accused of attacking Palestinians and peace activists in West Bank.

Police officers cordon off the area outside the Procter &...

Police officers cordon off the area outside the Procter & Gamble factory near Gebze, northwest Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Two gunmen took hostages at a factory owned by U.S. company Procter & Gamble in northwest Turkey on Thursday, according to media reports, apparently in protest of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Credit: AP

— Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.

Here's the latest:

U.N. SECRETARY GENERAL DISCUSSES EFFORTS TO END GAZA FIGHTING WITH QATAR'S PRIME MINISTER

UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations chief discussed efforts to end the fighting in Gaza, release the hostages and ensure support for humanitarian operations with Qatar’s prime minister, the U.N. spokesman said.

Friday’s meeting between Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani took place as the U.S., Qatar, Egypt and others are negotiating a possible new humanitarian pause and hostage release – and as 16 countries have suspended funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees known as UNRWA over allegations a dozen of its staff participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric responded when asked whether the Qatari prime minister offered any new funding for UNRWA: “I think the issue of humanitarian funding was discussed in a very positive atmosphere and I will leave it at that.”

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, issued a statement Thursday saying the colossal humanitarian needs of two million people in Gaza face the risk of deepening as a result of the 16 donor countries’ decision to suspend $440 million worth of funding.

He reiterated that if funding remains suspended, UNRWA will most likely be forced to shut operations by the end of February not only in Gaza but to millions of Palestinians across the region. The agency also operates in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Lazzarini reiterated Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal to donors to resume funding. He also tweeted thanks on Friday for the “overwhelming support from people, countries and organizations around the world” to UNRWA’s appeal for donations.

U.S. BEGINS STRIKES ON MILITIAS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA IN RETALIATION TO FATAL DRONE ATTACK, OFFICIALS SAY

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military launched an air assault on dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias Friday, in the opening salvo of retaliation for the drone strike that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan last weekend, officials told The Associated Press.

President Joe Biden and other top U.S. leaders have been warning for days that the U.S. would strike back at the militias, and they made it clear that it wouldn’t be just one hit, but would be a “tiered response” over time. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations not yet made public.

The initial strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft were hitting command and control headquarters, ammunition storage and other facilities. They came hours after Biden and top defense leaders joined grieving families to watch as the remains of the three Army Reserve soldiers were returned to the U.S. during a somber ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N. SAYS A PROPOSED CEASE-FIRE RESOLUTION ENDANGERS OTHER NEGOTATIONS

UNITED NATIONS — The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is warning that a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is putting “sensitive negotiations” for a prolonged humanitarian pause and release of all Israeli hostages “in jeopardy.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield told U.N. reporters on Friday that the U.S. is working “on a strong, compelling proposal” to release the Israeli hostages and get desperately needed humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza. She said the U.S., which is Israel’s closest ally, has been working with Qatar, the go-to mediator in the Mideast war, as well as Egypt and regional partners.

“If accepted and implemented, this proposal would move all parties one step closer to creating the conditions for sustainable cessation of hostilities,” she said.

Algeria, the Arab representative on the council, circulated the draft resolution to the Security Council's 15 members on Wednesday. It does not mention the hostages. Instead, it demands that all parties comply with international law, calls for unhindered access for humanitarian aid, and “rejects the forced displacement of the Palestinian civilian population.”

The U.S. ambassador said the Security Council has an obligation “to ensure that any action we take in the coming days increases pressure on Hamas to accept the proposal.”

Thomas-Greenfield said the Algerian draft resolution, however, puts the negotiations involving the U.S., Qatar and others “in jeopardy, derailing the exhaustive, ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure the release of hostages and secure an extended pause that Palestinian civilians and aid workers so desperately need.”

TOP U.S. DIPLOMAT WILL MAKE FIFTH TRIP TO MIDDLE EAST SINCE WAR BEGAN

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this weekend will make his fifth urgent trip to the Middle East since the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza erupted in October.

The State Department says Blinken will depart Washington on Sunday and travel to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank for talks with regional leaders that will last for most of next week.

Blinken “will continue diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement that secures the release of all remaining hostages and includes a humanitarian pause that will allow for sustained, increased delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza,” department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement on Friday.

“He will continue work to prevent the spread of the conflict, while reaffirming that the United States will take appropriate steps to defend its personnel and the right to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea,” Miller said. “The secretary will also continue discussions with partners on how to establish a more integrated, peaceful region that includes lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Blinken’s latest trip comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity and discussions over a new possible deal for a pause in Israeli military operations in exchange for the release of hostages held by Hamas. Talks between the U.S., Qatar, Egypt and Israel to explore potential arrangements were held last weekend in Paris with participants saying they were productive but remained very much a work in progress.

But the trip also comes as fears have grown in recent days for the possible escalation of the conflict with continued attacks on U.S. personnel and bases in Iraq, Syria and Jordan as well as stepped up military strikes against commercial shipping in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

ISRAEL SAYS IT INTERCEPTED A MISSILE APPROACHING FROM THE SOUTH, LIKELY FIRED BY YEMEN’S HOUTHI REBELS

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military said late Friday its Arrow missile defense system intercepted a missile that approached the country from the Red Sea, raising suspicion it was launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The Iran-backed rebels did not immediately claim responsibility for the attack but have launched barrages of missiles towards southern Israel since the Gaza war erupted on Oct. 7. Virtually all the projectiles bound for Israel have been intercepted.

The Israeli military said it was the fifth time during the war that it has deployed the Arrow — a system developed with the U.S. to intercept long-range missiles.

The Houthis, a Shiite group who control most of northern Yemen, began targeting commercial shipping in the Red Sea and The Gulf of Aden starting in November, and the attacks are ongoing.

The Houthis say their offensive is aimed at backing Hamas and Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip amid Israel’s war on Hamas. But they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for global trade.

The Houthis are sworn enemies of both Israel and America, and organize weekly pro-Palestinian rallies in the capital, Sanaa, and other cities under their control.

A THIRD OF ALL STRUCTURES IN GAZA HAVE BEEN DAMAGED BY WAR, UN SAYS

GENEVA — The U.N. satellite center says its latest analysis of available imagery indicates more than 69,000 structures in Gaza – or nearly one-third of all structures in the territory – have been at least moderately damaged in nearly four months of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Of those, more than 22,000 structures have been identified as destroyed, UNOSAT said.

The United Nations Satellite Center said Friday its latest assessment of the situation was based on high-resolution satellite imagery collected on Jan. 6-7, and was compared against similar imagery received from the skies on six other occasions since May.

“In total, a staggering 69,147 structures, equivalent to approximately 30% of the Gaza Strip’s total structures, are affected,” UNOSAT said in a statement.

It said the governorates of Gaza and Khan Younis sustained the most significant increase in damage compared to the previous look, on Nov. 26. More than 10,000 structures were damaged in each area.

“The satellite imagery analysis conducted by UNOSAT underscores the widespread destruction and the affected population’s need for support,” the satellite center said.

ISRAELI SECURITY SERVICE POSTS VIDEO OF AGENTS PUTTING ON DISGUISES AHEAD OF DEADLY RAID ON WEST BANK HOSPITAL

JERUSALEM — As part of a recruitment campaign, Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service posted photos on social media showing undercover agents putting on disguises ahead of a West Bank hospital raid in which they killed three Palestinian militants.

Medical staff at the Ibn Sina Hospital in the city of Jenin said there was no exchange of fire during the raid and the three Palestinians were shot in targeted killings. Israel’s military said one of the men, later claimed by Hamas as a member, had been planning an attack on Israelis, but provided no evidence.

Israeli undercover units in which agents try to blend in as local Palestinians have been active in the occupied West Bank for years. In Tuesday’s Jenin raid, some dressed up as civilian women in long robes and headscarves, while others pretended to be medical workers.

One photo posted on the Shin Bet’s Instagram showed someone tweezing hairs from the face of a man whose facial features were blurred. Another showed a man sitting in front of a mirror, wearing a traditional Muslim prayer cap as someone tended to his beard.

“You have already seen the end of the movie,” the post was captioned. “We went on an operation this week in the heart of Jenin to thwart terrorists planning attacks against Israelis.”

The post appeared to be a recruitment effort on behalf of the Shin Bet. It directed viewers to apply for a position at the agency and “take part” in the next operation.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Palestinian health officials say that 381 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, most by soldiers conducting near nightly arrest raids that triggered armed clashes and protests.

A MILLION KIDS IN GAZA NEED MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT BECAUSE OF WAR, UN AGENCY SAYS

JERUSALEM — The U.N. children’s agency said Friday that nearly every child across Gaza is in need of mental health support as the humanitarian crisis worsens in the besieged enclave.

That amounts to more than 1 million children, double the number the agency estimated were in need of the services before the war.

The conflict has “severely impacted” children’s mental health, said agency spokesperson Jonathan Crickx in Jerusalem.

Children have been showing “extremely high levels of persistent anxiety, loss of appetite, they can’t sleep, they have emotional outbursts or panic every time they hear the bombings,” he said, based on the reports of UNICEF employees and other partner organizations partners in Gaza.

Crickx said the length and intensity of the ongoing Israeli campaign, and the fact that most of the strip’s children are displaced, renders nearly all of them in need of psychosocial support.

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has prompted unprecedented destruction in the tiny coastal enclave and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe that has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million population and pushed more than a quarter into starvation, according to the U.N.

BELGIUM MAKES DIPLOMATIC PROTEST AFTER GAZA AGENCY DESTROYED

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s foreign ministry said Friday that it had summoned the Israeli ambassador to complain about the destruction of the country’s development agency office in Gaza.

Enabel’s office was in a six-story building in Gaza City. The ministry said it believed that none of the agency’s staff were present in the office when the building was bombed.

Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, accompanied by Development Minister Caroline Gennez, shared their concerns with Israel’s envoy to Belgium, Idit Rosenzweig-Abu, the ministry said in a statement.

“The destruction of civilian infrastructure is absolutely unacceptable and does not comply with international law,” it said. Given the ongoing war in Gaza, Belgium decided two weeks ago to pull all Enabel staff and their families out of the territory.

“We very much hope that these people – including many children – will be able to leave Gaza quickly and unharmed,” the ministry said.

Belgium currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. It plans to put the issue of compensation for damaged Gaza infrastructure financed by the bloc and its member countries on the agenda for debate.

IRAN-BACKED MILITIA WARNS IT WILL CONTINUE OPERATIONS AGAINST US TROOPS

BAGHDAD — In a statement released Friday, one of Iraq’s strongest Iran-backed militias, Harakat al-Nujaba, announced its plans to continue military operations against U.S. troops, despite allied factions having called off their attacks in the wake of a drone strike that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan Sunday.

Kataib Hezbollah, another powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, which has been watched closely by U.S. officials, said Tuesday it would “suspend military and security operations against the occupying forces” to avoid embarrassing the Iraqi government.

Akram al-Kaabi, leader of the Harakat al-Nujaba militia said in a statement Friday that “we respect their decision” but announced the continuation of his group’s military operations against U.S. troops. He dismissed U.S. threats of retaliation.

Al-Nujaba, which emerged from the larger Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia in 2013, has fought both opposition forces in Syria and the Islamic State militant group in Iraq.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition of Iranian-backed militias that the U.S. has blamed for the deadly attack in Jordan, has launched more than 160 attacks on bases hosting U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 7, amid tensions over U.S. support for Israel in the ongoing war in Gaza.

These attacks have put Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in a difficult position. Although backed by Iran-aligned factions, al-Sudani has sought to maintain favorable relations with Washington and has denounced the assaults on U.S. forces.

HAMAS SEEKS RELEASE OF KEY PALESTINIAN PRISONERS

BEIRUT — A senior Hamas official says his group is still studying a proposed multi-stage deal of prolonged pauses in Gaza fighting, accompanied by swaps of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, but at the same time he appeared to rule out key components of the proposal.

Osama Hamdan said the release of all hostages, believed to number more than 100, will only be possible if Israel ends its war on Hamas in Gaza and releases the thousands of Palestinian security prisoners Israel is holding.

He singled out two prisoners by name, including Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in Israel for his alleged role in several deadly attacks carried out a generation ago. Barghouti remains popular among Palestinians and is viewed as a unifying figure.

Hamdan said he believes his group holds enough hostages to be able to win the freedom of all prisoners serving sentences in Israeli prisons.

A priority is to win freedom for those serving life sentences, regardless of the groups they belong to. In addition to Barghouti, he named Ahmed Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as well as Hamas prisoners and those from the Islamic Jihad group.

Hamdan told Lebanon’s LBC TV that Hamas insists on a permanent cease-fire, rejecting the proposal’s staged approach, with several pauses in fighting.

“There is no way that this will be acceptable to the resistance,” he said.

“We have tried temporary truces and it turned out that the Israelis don’t respect these truces but always violate them,” Hamdan said in an apparent reference to a weeklong truce in November after which Israel resumed its offensive.

Hamdan said Hamas wants an end to the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip as well as promises for the reconstruction of the territory.

UN WARNS OF A 'PRESSURE COOKER OF DESPAIR'

GENEVA — The United Nations is warning that Rafah is becoming a “pressure cooker of despair” as thousands of people flee into the city from Khan Younis and other parts of southern Gaza as the Israel-Hamas war grinds on.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, also said the situation in Rafah is “not looking good” amid concerns that the city may be a new focus of Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

“Rafah is a pressure cooker of despair and we fear for what comes next,” he told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva on Friday. “It’s like every week we think, you know, it can’t get any worse. Well, go figure. It gets worse.

“It’s very important for us and for OCHA to put on record today our deep concern about what’s happening in Khan Yunis and Rafah in the southern part of the strip, because it’s really not looking good,” Laerke added.

Speaking from Jerusalem, Dr. Rik Peeperkorn, the representative for the World Health Organization in occupied Palestinian areas, said the U.N. health agency estimates that at least 8,000 Gazans should be sent abroad for medical care.

Of those, some three-quarters, or 6,000, need care for war injuries – such as treatment for burns or reconstructive surgery — while the rest require medical attention for conditions like cancer or other diseases, Peeperkorn said.

Since the start of the war on Oct. 7, a total of 243 people has been referred abroad, he said, adding: “That’s a pittance … that is way too little.”

He went on: “Rafah used to be a town of 200,000 people -- a bit of a sleepy town ... and now it’s harboring more than half of the Gazan population. So mind you, where should those people go? Maybe the point should be: it should not happen. And Rafah should not be attacked.”

HAMAS EXPECTED TO RESPOND SOON TO PROPOSAL THAT INCLUDES RELEASE OF HOSTAGES AND CEASE-FIRES

BEIRUT — A senior Hamas official says the group will respond “very soon” to a proposal that includes extended pauses in Gaza fighting and phased exchanges of Hamas-held hostages for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

The official told The Associated Press on Friday a lasting cease-fire is the most important component for Hamas, and that everything else can be negotiated.

The multi-stage proposal was drafted several days ago by senior officials from the United States, Israel, Qatar and Egypt, and is awaiting a Hamas response. In Cairo, a senior Egyptian official with direct knowledge of the contacts said Hamas has not submitted a formal response but that it has sent positive signals.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the indirect talks are still ongoing.

The proposal being presented to Hamas includes a significant increase in aid trucks entering Gaza and allowing displaced residents to gradually return to their homes in the north, but does not explicitly call for a permanent cease-fire. Israel has said it would not agree to end the war as a condition for hostage releases.

Hamas and other militants in Gaza continue to hold dozens of hostages, after abducting about 250 during their deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. More than 100 were released during a one-week truce in November, in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

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