The United Nations has revised its grim figure of the rising death toll from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, saying that it has surpassed 5,000 as of Monday. It stands at 5,087. Separately, over 90 Palestinians have been killed in escalating West Bank violence, which over the weekend included Israel launching a rare airstrike on Jenin. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are still holding at least 222 Israeli and foreign captives – a number which has again been revised upward.
European Union foreign ministers are meanwhile gathered in Brussels for an urgent meeting to take up the contentious issue of a ceasefire. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has been calling on world bodies to back a ceasefire. In response, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, “Personally, I think that a humanitarian pause is needed in order to allow the humanitarian support to come in and be distributed, seeing that half of the population of Gaza has been moving from their houses.”
Bloomberg is reporting Monday morning that EU leaders are set to endorse a call for a “humanitarian pause”. “The European Council supports the call of UNSG (U.N. Secretary-General Antonio) Guterres for a humanitarian pause in order to allow for safe humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need,” a draft statement of the summit reads.
But Washington, Israel’s staunchest supporter, is not expected to back a ceasefire – despite reports President Biden has sought for Israel’s military delay the expected imminent ground invasion, in order to buy more time to negotiate the freedom of more hostages.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Sunday news shows made this clear. Margaret Brennan, the host of CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” asked him, “UNICEF says 1,524 children have been killed in the Gaza Strip during these bombings. Why isn’t the US calling for at least a temporary ceasefire?“
Blinken then claimed that children dying on either side has hit him “right in the heart” – but he stopped short of directing any criticism at Israel’s indiscriminate and unrelenting bombing campaign. Instead, he defended it:
“Israel has to do everything it can to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Blinken said in reference to October 7 Hamas cross-border attack. “Freezing things in place where they are now would allow Hamas to remain where it is and to repeat what it’s done some time in the future. No country could accept that.”
He then cited unverified reports that Hamas has actively blocked Palestinians who are also American citizens from leaving the Gaza Strip. “We’ve had people come to Rafah, the crossing with Egypt. And to date, at least, Hamas has blocked them from leaving, showing once again, its total disregard for civilians of any kind who are — who are stuck in Gaza,” Blinken said. “So really, the ball is in Hamas’ court, in terms of letting people who want to leave, civilians from third countries, including Americans get out of Gaza.”
There are a reported up to 600 Americans stuck in Gaza, with one Palestinian-American telling NBC that “America’s not helping us, Biden’s not helping us, the embassy is not helping us.”
🚨 JUST IN: Heavyweight Israeli journalist Edy Cohen posted this video with the following caption:
“Its name was Gaza
Next Beirut” pic.twitter.com/wHfJEO14MD
— Mario Nawfal (@MarioNawfal) October 23, 2023
The United States is still bolstering its military presence in Middle East waters, readying for any contingency, even as it’s said to be pressing for furthering back-channel negotiations and delaying an all-out Israeli assault:
It was becoming increasingly clear Monday that the U.S. wants Israel to not only allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza, but for the country to let ongoing negotiations over the release of hostages held by Hamas to continue before it launches a ground invasion of the Palestinian territory. Israel said Monday that Hamas was still holding 222 people captive.
Two sources told CBS News the U.S. has sought to slow Israel’s plans for a ground invasion in order to prioritize the release of hostages and the distribution of aid, a message Washington is said to have been conveying primarily through defense channels.
The Pentagon is calling its moving two aircraft carrier strike groups into regional waters an act of “deterrence”.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had announced Saturday, “Following detailed discussions with President Biden on recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces across the Middle East Region, today I directed a series of additional steps to further strengthen the Department of Defense posture in the region.” He added: “These steps will bolster regional deterrence efforts, increase force protection for U.S. forces in the region, and assist in the defense of Israel.”
The White House has Iran in mind, and its proxies Hezbollah and Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, the latter who days ago tried to fire missiles on Israel, but which were intercepted by a US warship off Yemen’s coast. US THAAD and Patriot missile batteries have been sent to Israel.
In response to recent escalations by Iran & its proxy forces across the Middle East, SecDef Austin directed the USS Eisenhower, a THAAD BTRY, & additional Patriot BNs to the CENTCOM region to increase force posture, strengthen capabilities & ability to respond to contingencies. https://t.co/5twxq1y5Hq pic.twitter.com/fKjZSrinCi
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) October 22, 2023
“This is not what we want, not what we’re looking for. We don’t want escalation,” Blinken said. “We don’t want to see our forces or our personnel come under fire. But if that happens, we’re ready for it.” And Austin simultaneously affirmed the statements, saying “what we’re seeing is a prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region.”
It’s clear Hezbollah has held off committing itself to a major war with Israel, which could very well happen the moment the IDF mounts a major ground assault into Gaza. Hezbollah’s arsenal, with the help of Iran, is far superior to that of Hamas’, and is said to include tens of thousands of rockets of varying sizes.
There’s still been regular exchange of rocket and mortar fire, with Israeli sources reporting Monday that the Iron Dome intercepted an inbound drone from Lebanon via the sea. It was intercepted over Ein Hamifratz, south of Acre. At this point, several dozens of Israeli towns and communities have been evacuated from near the northern border.