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Pressure mounts on Israel over civilian casualties as ceasefire calls rebuffed

Demonstrators rally in support of Palestinians amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, outside the White Ho...

Demonstrators rally in support of Palestinians amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, outside the White Ho...

GAZA, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Having rebuffed calls for a ceasefire, Israel was set to come under sustained pressure on Monday to avoid civilian casualties during its assault on Gaza, while a U.S. diplomatic blitz in the region sought to reduce risks of the conflict escalating.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to meet with Turkey's foreign minister in Ankara on Monday, hours after hundreds of people at a pro-Palestinian protest tried to storm an air base that houses U.S. troops in southern Turkey.

Blinken on Sunday made an unannounced visit to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who joined international calls for an immediate ceasefire.

But after Blinken repeated U.S. concerns that a ceasefire could aid Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled that out unless hostages held by Hamas were released.

"There will be no ceasefire without the return of the hostages. This should be completely removed from the lexicon," Netanyahu said.

Israel's military said on Sunday it had surrounded the Gaza City. Palestinian news agency WAFA had reported "unprecedented bombardment" from Israel, while telecoms provider Paltel reported another cutoff of communications and internet services.

A spokesman for Israel's military told CNN late on Sunday that bombardments in northern Gaza were halted for several hours for two days in a row to allow civilians safe passage to move to the south of the narrow coastal strip.

"Not only are we telling them where to go, but we're also helping and creating much better humanitarian conditions in the south," Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said, without indicating whether such pauses would continue.

Pressure mounts on Israel over civilian casualties as ceasefire calls rebuffed
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks with his security detail and embassy staff on the tarmac upon arrival en route to meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, at Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, November 5, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool

Conricus said there was access to water and humanitarian goods in the south of Gaza, but Hamas was impeding convoys by firing on them. Reuters could not immediately verify his account.

U.S. CIA Director William Burns was also set to visit Israel on Monday to discuss the war and intelligence with senior officials, the New York Times reported. Burns also will make stops in other Middle East countries to discuss the Gaza situation, the Times quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying.

The CIA did not respond to Reuters' request for comment.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday and "reiterated his ironclad commitment to Israel's right to defend itself and emphasized the importance of both protecting civilians and delivering humanitarian assistance," the Pentagon said.

Austin "reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to deter any state or non-state actor seeking to escalate this conflict."

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will call foreign leaders later on Monday to discuss the conflict and advance the administration’s efforts to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza, her office said.

Jordan's air force air-dropped urgent medical aid to the Jordanian field hospital in Gaza early on Monday, according to a post on X, formerly Twitter, from Jordan's king and reports in state media.

"This is our duty to aid our brothers and sisters injured in the war on Gaza. We will always be there for our Palestinian brethren," King Abdullah said.

U.S. Central Command, which covers the Middle East, said on X that an Ohio-class nuclear missile submarine had arrived in the region - an unusual public announcement of a nuclear submarine's position that was seen by users of the platform as a message to Iran.

Pressure mounts on Israel over civilian casualties as ceasefire calls rebuffed
Palestinians search for casualties, at the site of Israeli strikes on houses, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at the Magazi Refugee Camp, in central Gaza Strip, November 5, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa

'Torn-apart flesh'

People searched for victims or survivors at the Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza, where the health ministry in the Hamas-run enclave said Israeli forces had killed at least 47 people in strike early on Sunday.

"All night I and the other men were trying to pick the dead from the rubble. We got children, dismembered, torn-apart flesh," said Saeed al-Nejma, 53, adding that he had been asleep with his family when the blast hit his neighbourhood.

Asked for comment, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they were gathering details.

In a separate attack, 21 Palestinians from one family, including women and children, were killed in strikes, the health ministry said. The IDF declined to comment.

Reuters could not independently verify these accounts.

"We demand that you stop them from committing these crimes immediately," Abbas told Blinken, urging an "immediate ceasefire" from Israel.

Palestinians were facing a war of "genocide and destruction", news agency WAFA quoted Abbas as saying.

Lebanon strikes

Tensions increased with Lebanon after an Israeli strike on a car in the south of the country killed three children and their grandmother, Lebanese authorities said.

Israel's chief military spokesperson said the military had attacked "terrorist targets of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon" in response to a missile attack against tanks that killed an Israeli citizen. He said a Hezbollah drone was also shot down.

Hezbollah said it responded by firing rockets at the town of Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel. The group said it would never tolerate attacks on civilians and its response would be "firm and strong".

Pressure mounts on Israel over civilian casualties as ceasefire calls rebuffed
Smoke rises over a part of Lebanon, as seen from Israel's border with the country, in northern Israel, November 5, 2023 REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ceasefire calls

Foreign ministers from Qatar, Saudi, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates met Blinken in Amman on Saturday and also urged him to persuade Israel to agree to a ceasefire. Blinken also visited Iraq on Sunday and held talks with Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani.

Pope Francis joined calls for peace. "Stop in the name of God," he said, calling for humanitarian aid and help for the injured to ease the "very grave" situation in Gaza.

But Blinken said a ceasefire would benefit Hamas, allowing it to regroup and attack again. Instead, the U.S. wants localized pauses in fighting to allow in humanitarian aid and for people to leave Gaza.