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Mideast Crisis: Hamas Has Responded to Latest Deal Offer, Officials Say

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Blinken Says ‘Agreement Is Possible’ With Hamas on a Hostage Deal

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken cautioned that there was still “a lot of work to be done,” as the United States and its allies prepare to review Hamas’s response to their cease-fire proposal.

Together with Qatar and Egypt, we put forward, as you know, a serious proposal that was aimed at not simply repeating the previous agreement, but expanding it. As the prime minister just said, Hamas responded tonight. We’re reviewing that response now and I’ll be discussing it with the government of Israel tomorrow. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we continue to believe that an agreement is possible and indeed essential. And we will continue to work relentlessly to achieve it. We’re also determined to use any pause to continue to pave a diplomatic path forward to a just and lasting peace and security for the region. That is the best way, the best way to ensure that Oct. 7 and the tragic loss of life by Israelis and Palestinians is not repeated.

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken cautioned that there was still “a lot of work to be done,” as the United States and its allies prepare to review Hamas’s response to their cease-fire proposal.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Hamas has responded to a cease-fire framework that could free hostages in Gaza, officials in Qatar and the group said on Tuesday, though the U.S. secretary of state, who is in the Middle East for days of shuttle diplomacy aimed at rallying support for the deal, cautioned that there was still “a lot of work to be done.”

In Washington, President Biden called Hamas’s demands “a little over the top,” without elaborating.

Standing with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken after a meeting in Doha, the prime minister of Qatar, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani, offered a more positive reaction, saying that Hamas’s response had been delivered to Israeli officials and that negotiations would continue. “We are optimistic,” he said.

Mr. Blinken was on the second day of a Middle East tour aimed at building support for the proposal, which was hammered out with Egyptian and Qatari mediators and backed by the United States and Israel. The proposal is aimed at pausing the fighting between Israel and Hamas for the first time since a one-week cease-fire in late November, during which more than 100 hostages were freed. Mr. Blinken was expected to meet with Israeli officials on Wednesday.

Hamas confirmed that it had responded to the proposal, saying it had dealt with the framework “positively,” though it reaffirmed earlier demands, including for a permanent cease-fire, reconstruction of Gaza, a lifting of the blockade, and the release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has already objected to some of these demands.

Hamas did not lay out its specific response, though its Al Aqsa TV reported that the militant group had offered amendments to the framework related to the issues of a cease-fire, reconstruction, lifting the blockade, evacuating wounded people and the return of displaced people to their homes and providing them with shelter.

An Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested that Israel was dissatisfied with Hamas’s counterproposal. Hamas, the official said, wants a deal only if it ensures its continued control of Gaza and ends the war —conditions rejected by Israel.

The Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, said in a statement that “Hamas’s response was passed over by the Qatari mediator to the Mossad and its details are being examined in depth by all officials engaged in the negotiations.”

The United States had just hours to review Hamas’s response before providing a public reaction, according to a senior U.S. official. When Mr. Blinken arrived for his first meeting in Qatar, the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, revealed the surprising news that the Qataris had received the counterproposal from Hamas an hour earlier.

Roughly three hours before the joint news conference with Sheikh Mohammed, Mr. Blinken’s team quickly reviewed the counterproposal and briefed White House officials, the official said. Mr. Biden received details, the official said, before he began a televised speech from the White House aimed at rallying Congress to pass a national security supplemental package that includes funding for the Israeli military and for Palestinian aid.

In recent days, Hamas leaders had signaled that substantial gaps remained between the two sides, even as representatives from the United States, Egypt and Qatar sought common ground.

“Hamas responded tonight,” Mr. Blinken said in Doha. “We’re reviewing that response now and I’ll be discussing with the government of Israel tomorrow.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but we continue to believe that an agreement is possible and indeed essential and we will continue to work relentlessly to achieve it,” he said.

When he visits Israel on this trip, Mr. Blinken was expected to convey American concerns about the civilian death toll in Gaza, according to U.S. officials.

Mr. Blinken will also discuss what diplomats call the “day-after” plans for governing Gaza after the fighting ends, including a possible role for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

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President Biden speaking from the State Dining Room at the White House on Tuesday.Credit…Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times

President Biden criticized Republican lawmakers on Tuesday for attempting to thwart bipartisan legislation that would overhaul the nation’s immigration system and, among other things, authorize billions of dollars in aid for Israel.

In a televised speech from the White House, Mr. Biden said that opposing the bill would deny military assistance to Israel and humanitarian aid to Palestinian people, who he emphasized were “really suffering and desperately need help.” In particular, he denounced former President Donald J. Trump, who has been lobbying Republicans to kill the bill in order to deny Mr. Biden a political win, blaming him for helping to create the congressional deadlock.

Mr. Biden also suggested that the political gridlock in Washington stood to hinder progress toward a deal to get Israeli hostages released.

He said there had been “some movement” on negotiations with Hamas to release hostages, who were taken during the Oct. 7 attack.

“There’s been a response from the opposition,” he said, referring to Hamas, “but it seems to be a little over the top.”

At roughly the same time as Mr. Biden was speaking, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was holding a joint news conference in Doha, Qatar, with the Qatari prime minister, at which they announced that Hamas had responded to the latest offer of a deal for a pause in the fighting in Gaza and a hostage-prisoner exchange.

Senators from both parties shaped the bill, which links a crackdown on unlawful migration across the U.S. border with Mexico to delivering emergency aid to Ukraine and Israel, but far-right Republicans have condemned the immigration restrictions as too weak. The proposal includes $14.1 billion in security assistance for Israel and $10 billion in humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict zones including Gaza, the West Bank and Ukraine.

In an unusual letter, a group of U.S. ambassadors stationed in the Indo-Pacific region urged congressional leaders on Monday to secure passage of legislation providing assistance to Ukraine, Israel and allies in the Pacific, saying America’s credibility with its strategic partners was on the line.

Mr. Biden said on Tuesday that he was not going to consider supporting separate bills that just addressed military assistance for Israel or Ukraine.

“I’m not going to concede that now,” he said. “We need it all. The rest of the world is looking at us.”

Carl Hulse contributed reporting.

Erica L. Green reporting from the White House

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Photographs of hostages seized on Oct. 7, on a wall in Tel Aviv on Monday.Credit…Susana Vera/Reuters

Israel has called securing the freedom of the hostages abducted to Gaza a key goal in its war against Hamas, so many in the country were shocked on Tuesday when it emerged that at least a fifth of the captives were already dead.

The news was likely to worsen a furor in Israel, where a debate over the government’s course of action in Gaza regarding the hostages has become divisive.

Israeli intelligence officers have concluded that at least 30 of the remaining 136 hostages captured by Hamas and its allies on Oct. 7 have died since the start of the war, according to a confidential assessment that was reviewed by The New York Times.

The bodies of two other dead Israelis, killed in 2014 during a previous war between Israel and Hamas, have been held in the territory ever since, bringing the total number of slain hostages inside Gaza to at least 32.

The Israeli government late on Tuesday released a statement saying that only 31 had been confirmed dead; the discrepancy between the two numbers could not be immediately reconciled.

“We have informed 31 families that their captured loved ones are no longer among the living and that we have pronounced them dead,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesman, said Tuesday after The Times published a report about the previously undisclosed hostage deaths.

Four officials said that Israeli intelligence officers were also assessing unconfirmed information that indicated that at least 20 other hostages may have also been killed.

Some of the dead were killed inside Israel on Oct. 7. Their deaths were unconfirmed at the time and they were counted among the hostages, but their bodies were taken by Hamas to Gaza, according to two of the officials.

Others were injured during the Hamas-led assault and died of their injuries after being abducted to Gaza, the officials said. Others still, the officials added, were killed by Hamas once inside Gaza.

At least three hostages were killed by the Israeli military during its ground operations. Another was killed during a failed rescue operation. Israeli soldiers found the bodies of some hostages, intact and without external injuries, inside the warren of tunnels Hamas has dug beneath Gaza. The army has yet to clarify the causes of those deaths.

The figure of 32 deaths is higher than any previous number the Israeli authorities have publicly disclosed.

In January, some family members stormed a meeting at Israel’s Parliament to demand that lawmakers take greater action to secure the captives’ release. That protest and similar demonstrations in recent months have helped expose a societal rift between those who support making a deal with Hamas to secure the captives’ release and those who seek the militant group’s total destruction.

More than 240 hostages were captured by Hamas and its allies during the Oct. 7 raid on southern Israel, prompting Israel to retaliate with massive airstrikes and then a ground invasion. Roughly half of the hostages have been freed, almost all during a temporary truce in November, when they were exchanged for 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees held in Israeli jails.

Since that truce, the Israeli government has said that its military operations in Gaza would pave the way to further hostage releases. Officials have argued that every Israeli military success places Hamas under more pressure to negotiate another exchange, and makes the military better able to rescue the remaining captives by force.

But scores of survivors and families of the hostages have said that the military campaign is endangering their loved ones’ lives. They want the government to make it a priority to reach a new hostage deal instead of pressing ahead with the invasion, lest their relatives be killed in the crossfire. Only one hostage has been freed by an Israeli military rescue operation.

The debate over the hostages has become particularly acute in recent days, as negotiations over another cease-fire deal — mediated by Egypt and Qatar — have gathered momentum.

Egypt and Qatar have negotiated with the leaders of Hamas on a proposal backed by the United States that could temporarily stop the war, free the remaining hostages there in exchange for Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, and allow more food, water, medicine and other supplies into the territory.

On Tuesday, Hamas said it had received the proposal and delivered a response to the mediators, but did not elaborate.

Right-wing members of Israel’s ruling coalition have threatened to leave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government if he agrees to a deal that allows Hamas to remain in power in exchange for the freedom of all the remaining hostages.

But other members of his coalition, including a centrist former general, Gadi Eisenkot, have suggested that freeing the hostages is a more important goal than further military gains, and that the two goals are mutually incompatible.

Asked for comment, the Israeli military said in a statement that it was “deploying all available resources to locate and retrieve as much information as possible regarding the hostages currently held by Hamas.”

A spokeswoman for the main alliance of hostage families, Liat Bell Sommer, said the alliance was seeking an immediate deal.

“We are aware that there are bodies in Hamas captivity. We are also aware that every day the hostages are held in Hamas tunnels is a death sentence to them,” Ms. Sommer said.

Other hostages may have also already died, but the military has yet to declare them dead because it needs to attain absolute proof before telling their families, according to Avi Kalo, who led a military intelligence department that dealt with prisoners of war and missing people.

“When it comes to the decision about whether to declare a prisoner of war, or a missing person, dead, Israeli intelligence needs 100 percent certainty,” said Mr. Kalo.

“Such a terrible message must not be conveyed except in the case of absolute and final knowledge,” he added.

The Israeli military’s assessment did not conclude that any of the dead hostages were killed in Israeli strikes. But some of the hostages freed in November have said that they fear those still in Gaza could be killed in Israeli salvos. At least one freed hostage said the relentless Israeli bombardment at times felt as menacing as the threat posed by her captors.

“Many times I told myself that, in the end, I will die from Israel’s missiles and not from Hamas,” said Sahar Kalderon, speaking in an interview last December, weeks after being released. Her father remains captured inside Gaza.

“What about my father, who has been left behind?” she said in the interview. “I ask of everyone who sees this: Please, stop this war; get all the hostages out.”

Reporting was contributed by Johnatan Reiss, Aaron Boxerman, Gabby Sobelman and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad.

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Displaced Palestinians in a makeshift tent camp in Rafah last week.Credit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Palestinians sheltering in crowded tent cities along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt were fearful on Tuesday after a senior Israeli minister reiterated that Israel’s ground invasion would extend to Rafah, the southernmost city in the enclave where hundreds of thousands of displaced people have ended up.

The statement by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has left Palestinians — many of whom are exhausted from relocating multiple times and sleeping in tents in cold and rainy weather — uncertain about where to seek safety. It was at least the second time in recent days that Mr. Gallant vowed to make such an advance.

“We’re terrified,” said Rajab al-Sindawi, a 48-year-old secondhand clothing salesman from Gaza City. “We’ve been running away from death, moving from place to place, but now we’re at the border. Where should we go?”

Mr. al-Sindawi, his wife and their seven children arrived in Rafah in early January after moving several times in search of safety.

While the army considers Rafah its next operational target, the security establishment needs to complete more planning before sending ground forces into the area, said an Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to communicate with the media.

Entering Rafah will be “extremely complicated,” the official said, noting that security officials were taking into account Egyptian sensitivities about Israeli forces operating near the border, as well as the enormous civilian population.

The al-Sindawis have been living in a makeshift structure of loose plastic draped over wooden beams on a sidewalk in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah. While they have tried to make their encampment more livable, adding a table to prepare food, it has been a challenge to keep the space clean, especially with the mud from recent rainfall.

Mr. al-Sindawi, whose left leg is partly paralyzed, said he and his family had only two mattress pads and six blankets for bedding.

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Rajab al-Sindawi sent a video to the New York Times reporter Adam Rasgon showing the makeshift tents where he and his family are living in Rafah.CreditCredit…Rajab al-Sindawi

Over the past day, Israeli forces have hit structures across Gaza, including in the vicinity of the Nasser Medical Complex in the southern city of Khan Younis, the second-largest hospital in the territory. The Israeli army said its forces were continuing to fight militants in western Khan Younis. It also said it conducted an airstrike that killed an Islamic Jihad fighter in the central Gaza city of Deir al Balah who it said had participated in the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.

More than 100 people were killed in the previous 24 hours, the Gazan health ministry said Tuesday morning.

Speaking at a news conference on Monday, Mr. Gallant said Israeli ground forces would invade places that they still had not reached in central and southern Gaza, including Rafah, which he labeled “the last stronghold remaining in Hamas’s hands.”

“Every terrorist hiding in Rafah should know that their end will be like those in Khan Younis, Gaza City and every other place in the Gaza Strip: surrender or death,” Mr. Gallant said.

The comments, which came as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was in the region to press for a cease-fire, were in line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance that Israel would continue fighting Hamas in Gaza until “complete victory.”

With the ground invasion having steadily pushed Gazans farther and farther south, Rafah’s population is believed to have roughly quintupled since the start of the war, according to the United Nations. Egypt has rejected the idea of opening its border to allow large numbers of the displaced to take temporary refuge on its territory.

Sana al-Karabiti, 34, originally from Gaza City, said the possibility of ground troops entering Rafah was bringing back harrowing memories of when Israeli tanks pulled into her neighborhood early in the war.

“I can feel my hair turning gray,” said Ms. al-Karabiti, a pharmacist who has been huddling in a tent in the al-Salam neighborhood of Rafah. “I keep asking myself what I’ll do if they reach where I am.”

A small number of people in Rafah were already dismantling their tents, packing their bags and fleeing to central Gaza, but Mr. al-Sindawi was unsure whether it would be safer there.

“We’re thinking about going to Nuseirat, but we’re also hearing in the news about bombings in Nuseirat,” he said, referring to an area in central Gaza where his family members live. “We have no idea what to do.”

Other displaced Palestinians were frustrated that Israeli officials had told them Rafah would be safe — but are now talking about entering the city.

“Why did they tell us to come here?” said Mukhlis al-Masri, 32, who has been staying at a United Nations school in Rafah. “This is so unjust.”

Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting from London.

Adam Rasgon reporting from Jerusalem

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President Javier Milei of Argentina at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on Tuesday. He describes himself as Catholic but also professes to have a deep connection with Judaism. Credit…Leo Correa/Associated Press

President Javier Milei of Argentina stepped off a plane in Israel on Tuesday to start his first state visit as president, and immediately promised to move his nation’s embassy to Jerusalem. His declaration drew praise from the Israeli government and criticism from Hamas, the armed Palestinian group Israel is at war with in the Gaza Strip.

“I come to support Israel against the Hamas terrorists,” Mr. Milei said to Israel’s foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, at the airport in Tel Aviv. “I plan to move the embassy to West Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s status has long been contested. Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, and Palestinians hope it will one day form the capital of a future Palestinian state. All but a handful of foreign governments consider it occupied territory, and have their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Milei, an arch conservative who took office in December, had pledged to move the embassy during his presidential campaign last year, and his announcement on Tuesday prompted a thank-you from the office of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The Prime Minister spoke about this with President Milei after his election, and welcomes the fact that the President has kept his promise,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said on X.

Hamas, the group that controlled Gaza before its current war with Israel, said in a statement that it “strongly condemns” the move.

In 2017, President Donald J. Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, reversing nearly seven decades of American foreign policy, and later moved the U.S. Embassy there.

Mr. Milei has sought to align Argentina strongly with the United States and Israel on diplomatic issues. The Argentine president, who describes himself as Catholic, also professes to have a deep connection with Judaism, saying he often consults with rabbis instead of priests and studies the Torah.

In a recent interview, Mr. Milei said that he would consider converting to Judaism, but that its rules on observing Shabbat would make it difficult to carry out his duties as president.

Mr. Milei is expected next to visit Italy, where he will meet with Pope Francis, a fellow Argentine. Mr. Milei drew criticism during his campaign for his harsh attacks against the pope in the past, including calling him a “filthy leftist.”

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A demonstration in support of Palestinians in Gaza, in Melbourne, Australia, in November.Credit…James Ross/AAP Image, via Reuters

A group of U.S. ambassadors stationed in the Indo-Pacific region is urging congressional leaders to secure passage of legislation providing assistance to Ukraine, Israel and allies in the Pacific, saying America’s credibility with its strategic partners is on the line.

“Governments are watching what we do at this pivotal moment in history — a time when decisions that we take now will have lasting impacts for years to come,” said the letter from nine diplomats sent to Capitol Hill on Monday. “They want to see that when the chips are down, the United States will be there for our allies and partners.”

The letter is somewhat unusual for a diplomatic corps that is usually reluctant to engage in such fights publicly. But the ambassadors, who met recently at a regional conference, said that the importance of the aid and the signals that failure would send warranted the appeal.

A $118 billion emergency national security spending package, which pairs aid for American allies to strict new border policies demanded by Republicans, is teetering on the brink of collapse in Congress ahead of a test vote scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate.

“None of us has ever signed a letter quite like this one,” said the message to the four top leaders of Congress from the mix of career diplomats and those with more political backgrounds. “But given the gravity of this historical moment, we believe it is imperative to share with you our direct and honest assessment as you consider the supplemental funding request, which we view as essential.”

The ambassadors signing the letter were Philip Goldberg of South Korea, Rahm Emanuel of Japan, Caroline Kennedy of Australia, MaryKay Carlson of the Philippines, Eric Garcetti of India, Nicholas Burns of China, Tom Udall of New Zealand, Edgard Kagan of Malaysia and Marc Knapper of Vietnam.

“Some of the ambassadors signing this letter are former members of Congress ourselves or have dealt with the legislative process; all of us deeply value the critical role of Congress in foreign affairs and appreciate that budgets are ultimately a legislative matter,” it said. “Nonetheless, we feel it is important to convey to you directly the profound effect this budget decision will have on our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.”

Many backers of the legislation in Congress have warned that failure to follow through on aid to Ukraine could embolden China in the region. The ambassadors said that nations with expansionist ideas would take note of the outcome when lawmakers hold what the letter described as one of the most consequential votes in a generation.

“Not only will our allies and partners take stock of this moment, so will our adversaries,” it said. “The credibility of our commitment to collective security and deterrence hangs in the balance.”

The package slated for a vote on Wednesday would send $60 billion in additional assistance to Ukraine, $14 billion to Israel and nearly $5 billion for partners in the Indo-Pacific to counter China.

Carl Hulse Reporting from Capitol Hill

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An Israeli soldier stopping a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance in Tulkarem, in the occupied West Bank, last month.Credit…Marco Longari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Amnesty International said on Monday that Israeli forces were killing Palestinians in the West Bank with “near total impunity” as the world’s attention focused on Gaza, demanding in a new report that the International Criminal Court step up its investigation into Israel’s conduct in the Israeli-occupied area.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces have used live fire to disperse Palestinian protests, attacked people trying to help the injured and carried out deadly arrest raids that have spread fear throughout Palestinian communities, Amnesty International said in its report. It said the Israeli forces’ actions added to the country’s “well-documented track record of using excessive and often lethal force to stifle dissent and enforce its system of apartheid against Palestinians.”

The human rights organization said that Israel’s use of unlawful force in the West Bank had sharply escalated since Oct. 7, when a Hamas-led attack from Gaza killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health officials there.

The Israeli military has described its actions in the West Bank as counterterrorism efforts necessary to prevent further attacks. Israel has strongly denied prior accusations that it has committed the crime of apartheid.

Israeli military operations have raised alarms from several human rights groups, including the United Nations human rights office, which called in December for Israel to “end unlawful killings” of Palestinians in the West Bank and to immediately stop the use of “military weapons and means during law enforcement operations.”

Since Oct. 7, Israeli forces in the West Bank have killed at least 360 Palestinians and injured 4,270, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Sunday. Last year was the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank since the office began recording casualties in 2005, and about 70 percent of those killings were reported during Israeli military operations, O.C.H.A. has said.

Amnesty’s report detailed its investigations into four incidents that it said were emblematic of the recent escalation, and renewed its call for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, to take action. In 2021, the I.C.C. opened an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Israeli-occupied areas, but many Palestinian groups have criticized the pace and focus of the inquiry.

Amnesty’s director for global research and policy, Erika Guevara-Rosas, called for Mr. Khan to investigate the killings in the West Bank as possible war crimes, saying in the report thatan international justice system worth its salt must step in.”

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A destroyed house in the in Tulkarm, in the occupied West Bank, last month.Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock

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The funeral last month of Ahmed and Jalal Jabarin, who were shot dead by Israeli troops when their car broke through a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron.Credit…Marco Longari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Among the incidents investigated by Amnesty was an Israeli raid that began on Oct. 19 and lasted more than 24 hours in Nur Shams, an area that originated decades ago as a refugee camp for Palestinians displaced in the wars surrounding the founding of Israel. Israeli forces killed 13 Palestinians during the raid, including six children, according to Amnesty and Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.

One of those killed during the raid, Amnesty said, was Taha Mahamid, an unarmed 15-year-old shot by Israeli forces when he peeked out of his house to see if they had left the area. His father was shot and seriously injured when he went to retrieve Taha’s body, and the family’s home was raided by Israeli forces about 12 hours later, Amnesty said.

One of Taha’s sisters told Amnesty investigators that her brother was shot in the leg, then in his stomach, then in his eye.

“They did not give him a chance,” the human rights group quoted her as saying. “In an instant, my brother was eliminated.”

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At the U.N. Security Council on Monday, China’s ambassador, Zhang Jun, broadly accused the United States of using excessive force around the world and manipulating public opinion about its intentions. Credit…Eduardo Munoz/EPA, via Shutterstock

Russia and China used an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday to sharply criticize recent U.S. retaliatory strikes on Iraq and Syria, calling the military action a violation of the territorial integrity of those countries that would further destabilize the Middle East.

U.S. tensions with Russia have been high since that country’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, ordered his forces to invade Ukraine almost two years ago. The Security Council has frequently been a platform for U.S. and Russia’s spats over Ukraine, Syria and, most recently, the war in Gaza.

China has sided with Russia on those issues and maintained a consistent policy of denouncing actions that undermine a country’s sovereignty, even as its own territorial aspirations have drawn increasing U.S. opposition. In the conflicts in the Middle East, China has close ties to many of the key actors, including Russia and Iran.

Russia requested the emergency meeting, which focused on three days of American strikes that started on Friday, aimed at what the United States said were targets linked to militias backed by Iran. The U.S. strikes followed what the Pentagon said had been more than 160 attacks on American forces in the region during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, including one on Jan. 28 that killed three U.S. soldiers at an outpost in Jordan.

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, called the strikes “another unlawful and irresponsible act of the United States in the region of Middle East” and said the country wanted to draw bigger adversaries, like Iraq and Iran, into war. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is seeking to avoid such an expansion of hostilities, and has forecast its strikes to minimize casualties.

Mr. Nebenzya also sought to connect the strikes to the U.S. election year, saying, “We see in these ‘flex their muscles’ attempts, first of all, a desire to influence domestic political landscape in America, a desire to somehow correct the disastrous image of the current American administration on the international arena as the presidential election campaign is heating up.”

Robert Wood, a U.S. ambassador, defended the military’s actions as “necessary and proportionate” and in line with both international law and the right to self-defense. The killing of American soldiers by Iran-backed militia, he said, “was unacceptable, and attacks like this cannot continue.”

Mr. Wood blamed Iran for enabling the network of militia in the region that has opened fronts against Israel during the war in Gaza, launching near-daily attacks on U.S. soldiers and disrupting shipping in the Red Sea, a key conduit in global trade.

He urged countries with connections to Iran press it to rein in its regional proxy militias. And he said the U.S. strikes on the militias’ command and intelligence bases and logistic and supply chains had successfully degraded their capabilities.

Representatives of Syria, Iraq and Iran also condemned the U.S. strikes, saying that, in contrast to the stated U.S. aims, they had killed civilians.

China backed that criticism. “The security of one country can’t be achieved at the expense of another country,” said Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., broadly accusing the United States of using excessive force around the world and manipulating public opinion about its intentions.

And Iran’s ambassador to the body, Saeid Iravani, rejected the idea that Iran has military bases in Iraq and Syria or commands proxy militias, despite significant evidence to the contrary. He eventually took a conciliatory tone, reflecting comments from Tehran that have stopped short of threatening revenge for the strikes.

“Iran has never sought to bring its dispute with the United States into Iraq’s territory,” Mr. Iravani told the Council, reiterating Iran’s stance that it does not seek a war with the United States.

Many Council members repeated their calls for an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, which has killed more than 27,000 people, according to the health authorities in Gaza, and has destabilized the region. Efforts to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire have garnered wide support at the U.N. and at the Council, but have been blocked by the United States, which as a permanent member of the Security Council wields veto power. Algeria, the only Arab member of the Council, has drafted a new resolution calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. Its terms are still under negotiation.

The U.N.’s top political chief, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the Council that, after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 set off the war in Gaza, the risk of a wider conflict was obvious. The attacks killed 1,200 people and led to the abduction to Gaza of 240 others, Israeli officials said.

She cautioned all sides “to step back from the brink and to consider the unbearable human and economic cost of a potential regional conflict.”

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Israelis demonstrate outside the UNRWA offices in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit…Ammar Awad/Reuters

The United Nations on Monday named the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to head an independent investigation into the conduct of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, in the aftermath of Israeli allegations that 12 members of the agency’s staff in Gaza participated in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks.

The independent investigation is to run parallel to the U.N.’s internal investigation into the conduct of the accused workers at UNRWA, which plays a crucial role in providing shelter and aid supplies to displaced Gazans.

Ms. Colonna, who stepped down as foreign minister last month, will work with three Scandinavian groups to examine how UNRWA works and whether it needs to strengthen its methods or adopt new ones for “ensuring neutrality,” according to an announcement by the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres. That is likely to include how it vets and monitors its 13,000 workers in Gaza to be sure they are not combatants.

The agency has said that nine of the employees were fired and two were dead. The U.N. has said the accused could face criminal charges.

The Scandinavian groups are the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. The investigators, collectively known as the Review Group, are to begin work on Feb. 14 and are expected to deliver an interim report to Mr. Guterres by late March and a final report in late April, which will be made public, the U.N. said.

The accusations against the 12 UNRWA staff members, based on Israeli intelligence gathered from their phones, led the United States, followed by more than a dozen other countries, to announce the suspension of funding to the agency while the U.N. investigated. It is set to lose $65 million by the end of February as funding cuts begin to kick in, according to internal accounting documents reviewed by The New York Times.

Mr. Guterres and other senior U.N. officials, including Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, have warned that defunding the agency threatens the delivery of crucial aid to 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza. They say that most of the population is displaced, at the brink of starvation and living in an active war zone, in what Mr. Guterres described as “one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world.” UNRWA says that nearly a million people are sheltering in or near its facilities.

Vedant Patel, the deputy State Department spokesman, said that the Biden administration was “looking at what options exist for supporting civilians in Gaza through partners like the World Food Program, UNICEF” and other nongovernmental organizations. Mr. Patel noted that of $10 billion earmarked for humanitarian assistance in a supplemental spending bill crafted by Senate negotiators, the department expected $1.4 billion to be allocated to Gaza.

But eight major international aid agencies, including Mercy Corps, Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee, said in a joint statement on Monday that no other aid agency could “replicate UNRWA’s central role in the humanitarian response in Gaza” and noted that “amid the current crisis, many will struggle to even maintain their current operations without UNRWA’s partnership and support.” The statement urged the donors to resume their funding.

Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

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