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Smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip onFriday, after battles resumed between Israel and the Hamas movement. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
TEL AVIV, Israel — It was, it seemed, the way of this war.
As America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, flew out of Tel Aviv on Friday morning, having repeatedly expressed hopes that Israel’s fragile seven-day truce with the militant group Hamas would continue, the bombs began falling once again.
The last week had marked a merciful hiatus in the region’s worst bloodshed in decades. A mediated swap brought a measure of balm to families on both sides of the conflict: Scores of hostages held by Hamas were exchanged for nearly 250 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.
Aid groups, moving as quickly as they could, sent truckloads of supplies into the devastated, blockaded Gaza Strip. Palestinians in Gaza, more than 13,000 of whom have been killed in the last eight weeks, rushed to bury their dead and scrape together necessities to keep on living.
But the war’s fundamental dynamic appeared unchanged.
Even before the pact formally expired, Hamas fired new barrages of rockets into Israel, sending people scrambling for shelter as sirens wailed. Moments after the truce ended, Israeli fighter jets again pummeled Gaza, sending clouds of dust and black smoke rising into the air.
As the battle was rejoined, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed anew to destroy the Palestinian militant group, which on Oct. 7 carried out the worst-ever attack inside the country’s borders, killing some 1,200 people, according to Israel.
Israel and Hamas blamed one another for the breakdown of the temporary truce, and Blinken, who traveled onward to Dubai from Israel, put the onus on Hamas, citing reneged-upon commitments and, among other factors, a Hamas-claimed shooting in Jerusalem on Thursday that killed four people.
But during the visit — Blinken’s third to Israel since Oct. 7 — he also pressed Netanyahu for a clear plan to curtail the scope of death and destruction in Gaza, U.S. officials said.
Specific requests by the Biden administration included the establishment of large safe zones within Gaza, encompassing entire neighborhoods, where Palestinian civilians would be safe from Israeli attacks, the officials said. Before the truce, civilians trying to move within Gaza, even in accordance with the Israeli military’s instructions, found themselves under fire.
The Palestinian Health Ministry doesn’t break down the death toll into civilians or combatants, but has said the vast majority of those killed in Gaza have been women and children.
The tone of the talks was described as tough, with Netanyahu often offering fierce resistance to some U.S. demands. But Blinken later said Israel was beginning to “take steps” in line with agreed-on measures.
Israel’s plan to address concerns over civilian casualties appeared centered at least in part on herding civilians into shrinking enclaves within Gaza. The Israeli military on Friday released a map delineating hundreds of numbered parcels, and called on Gazans to be aware of their corresponding location in case of an evacuation order.
Israel also dropped leaflets in southern Gaza urging civilians to leave homes that were to the east of the southern population center of Khan Yunis, which is designated a “dangerous battle zone.” People living in several parts of Gaza City were also warned that they needed to move southward.
With some 80% of a population of more than 2 million having fled or lost their homes in airstrikes, Gaza’s inhabitants are now almost exclusively concentrated in the south of the narrow strip, after Israel sent ground troops into the territory’s north. Now the ground invasion is expected to expand into parts of the south. But people living in the blockaded enclave say there is nowhere safe to go.
The war has coincided with an upsurge in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian civilians, including arson, shootings and other forms of intimidation. In an effort to address that violence, Blinken informed the Israeli government that it planned to ban visas for Jewish settlers believed to have engaged in such attacks.
The visas are a prized commodity because many settlers have relatives in the United States.
Though Jewish settlers who hold American citizenship can’t be barred from the United States, the Biden administration called on Israel to prosecute those who engage in violence, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
The truce expired Friday at 7 a.m. local time, as Blinken and his entourage were preparing to board a motorcade taking them to the airport for departure to Dubai. Just hours before, he had wrapped up a long day of meetings with Netanyahu, other Israeli military and Cabinet officials and, separately, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the West Bank’s administrative center.
U.S. officials said they believed Israel would have liked to continue with brief combat pauses as long as hostages held by Hamas and other militant groups were being released. But Israel said Hamas was failing to produce the agreed quota of about 10 hostages per day, the U.S. officials said.
Israel said 137 hostages — now mainly adult men, both soldiers and civilians — remain in Gaza, although numbers have fluctuated because some are thought to have died in captivity, and Israeli forensics experts are still identifying remains of people killed in the Oct. 7 onslaught in southern Israel.
Qatar, which has been mediating, said it was trying to restart the truce, but difficulties were mounting. Qatar’s foreign ministry said the resumption of Israeli bombing “complicates mediation efforts and exacerbates the humanitarian catastrophe.”
The truce, agreed to last week, had initially been envisioned as lasting four days, but extensions raised hopes for a longer-term template while hostages and prisoners were exchanged.
By the time the pause expired, more than 100 hostages had been freed, 86 of them Israelis, including those holding dual citizenship, and 24 foreign nationals, most of them from Thailand. But the pace of releases had faltered before the truce ended, with only eight Israelis freed Thursday.
Israel, for its part, released 240 Palestinian prisoners, all of them women or teenagers. Some had been convicted of offenses including attacks against Israeli soldiers or civilians; others were being held without trial or formal charges.
The resumption of Israeli airstrikes caused at least 178 deaths on Friday alone, Palestinian health officials in Gaza said. The official Palestinian toll of 13,300 since the start of the fighting is almost certainly low, the officials said, because so many dead have not yet been extracted from the rubble of whole districts destroyed in Israeli airstrikes.
Departing from Dubai, where he held meetings with Arab foreign ministers on the sidelines of global climate talks, Blinken sought to put the best face on U.S. efforts to stem the bloodshed, ease humanitarian suffering in Gaza and win the release of hostages.
President Joe Biden’s staunch defense of Israel’s right to self-defense itself has cost him the support of many young and Arab American voters at home, and has sent ripples of anger throughout the wider Muslim world.
Speaking with reporters on the tarmac before returning to Washington, Blinken alluded to regional tensions sparked by the war, saying the United States remains “very much focused, as we’ve been all along, on trying to make sure that this conflict doesn’t spread, that it doesn’t escalate in other places.”
The United States, he said, was looking “not only at what’s happening today … but also what happens the day after in Gaza, and how we can get on the path to a just, lasting and secure peace for Israelis and Palestinians.”
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