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US VP Harris calls for restraint as Israel strikes southern Gaza



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Hamas deputy head says no more exchanges without ceasefire

U.S. says it wants to see Gaza and West Bank unified

Israel wants 'security envelope' around Gaza

By Mohammad Salem and Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA/CAIRO, Dec 2 (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said too many innocent Palestinians had been killed in Gaza as Israeli war planes and artillery bombarded the enclave on Saturday following the collapse of a truce with Hamas militants.

Residents feared the barrages presaged an Israeli ground operation in the south of the Palestinian territory that would pen them into a shrinking area and possibly try to push them across into Egypt.

The Gaza health ministry said at least 193 Palestinians had been killed since the truce ended on Friday, adding to the more than 15,000 Palestinian dead since the start of the war. Israel has sworn to annihilate Hamas following its Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel in which it says 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 taken hostage.

Speaking in Dubai, Harris said Israel had a right to defend itself, but international and humanitarian law must be respected and "too many innocent Palestinians have been killed."

"Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering, and the images and videos coming from Gaza, are devastating," Harris told reporters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also weighed in on the need for Israel to protect Gaza civilians as a "moral responsibility" even as he said the U.S. would remain its closest friend. "The center of gravity is the civilian population," he said. "And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was continuing to work in coordination with the U.S. and international organisations to define "safe areas" for Gaza civilians.

"This is important because we have no desire to harm the population," Netanyahu told a news conference in Tel Aviv. "We have a very strong desire to hurt Hamas."

Harris also sketched out a U.S. vision for post-conflict Gaza, saying the international community must support recovery and Palestinian security forces must be strengthened.

"We want to see a unified Gaza and West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian voices and aspirations must be at the center of this work," she said, adding that Hamas must no longer run Gaza.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority governs parts of the occupied West Bank. Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' mainstream Fatah party and has ruled the enclave ever since.

Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas once and for all. The Iranian-backed Islamist group is sworn to Israel’s destruction. One of its officials has said Hamas would repeat the Oct. 7 attacks if possible.

The Israeli military said it had killed Wessam Farhat, commander of a Hamas battalion who sent fighters to hit two kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7. It also described him as one of the planners of the raid.

ISRAEL SEEKS 'SECURITY ENVELOPE'

Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said Israel did not want to see Gaza's civilians caught in the crossfire.

"Israel is targeting Hamas, a brutal terrorist organization that has committed the most horrific violence against innocent civilians. Israel is making a maximum effort to safeguard Gaza's civilians," Regev said.

He said that when the war was over, Israel would seek a "security envelope" with special zones and arrangements to prevent Hamas from being positioned on its border.

Throughout Saturday morning, a steady stream of wounded people were carried into the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. Gaza health officials said 650 had been wounded since the truce collapsed.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said the renewed fighting was intense.

"It's a new layer of destruction coming on top of massive, unparalleled destruction," Robert Mardini told Reuters in Dubai.

With conditions inside Gaza reaching "breaking point," in Mardini's words, the first aid trucks since the end of the truce entered from Egypt through the Rafah crossing, Egyptian security and Red Crescent sources said. Some 100 trucks passed through, carrying food, water and medical supplies, the sources said.

A senior official said Israel would facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza's civilians.

The warring sides blamed each other for the collapse of the seven-day truce, during which Hamas had released hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Israel said it had recalled a team from Qatar, host of indirect negotiations with Hamas, accusing the Palestinian faction of reneging on a deal to free all the women and children it was holding.

French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile said he was heading to Qatar to work on a new truce.

The deputy head of Hamas, however, said no prisoners would be exchanged with Israel unless there is a ceasefire and all Palestinian detainees in Israel are released.

Saleh Al-Arouri told Al Jazeera TV that Israeli hostages held by Hamas are soldiers and civilian men who previously served in the army.

But Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas breached its commitment to free 17 women and children still held in Gaza and insisted that the militant group must keep its word.


SOUTH TARGETED

The southern part of Gaza including Khan Younis and Rafah was pounded on Saturday. Residents said houses and a school had been hit and three mosques destroyed in Khan Younis. Columns of smoke rose into the sky.

Hamas said it targeted Tel Aviv with a rocket barrage. There were no reports of damage but paramedics said one man was treated for a shrapnel injury in central Israel.

Displaced Gazans have been sheltering in Khan Younis and Rafah because of fighting in the north, but residents said they feared Israeli troops were preparing to move south.

Palestinian witnesses said Israeli tanks had taken up positions near the road between Khan Younis and Deir Al-Balah.

Yamen, who gave only his first name, fled to Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza from the north after Israel destroyed several districts there.

"Where to after Deir Al-Balah, after Khan Younis? I don't know where I would take my wife and six children."

On Saturday morning, Israeli air strikes hit areas close to the Nasser Hospital six times, medics and witnesses said.

The hospital is filled with thousands of displaced and hundreds of wounded, including many of those who had been evacuated from north Gaza hospitals.

"A night of horror," said Samira, a mother of four. "It was one of the worst nights we spent in Khan Younis in the past six weeks since we arrived here ... We are so afraid they will enter Khan Younis."


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Reporting by Suhaib Salem in Gaza, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo; additional reporting by Mohammed Salem and Roleen Tafakji in Gaza, Ari Rabinovich and Emily Rose in Jerusalem, Andrew Mills in Doha, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Dubai; Writing by Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Matt Spetalnick
Editing by Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis

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