Israeli troops have been with Hamas militants on the edges of Gaza City, as the Palestinian death toll rose above 9000. After nearly four weeks of war sparked by Hamas’ deadly rampage in Israel, US and Arab leaders raised pressure on Israel to ease its siege of Gaza and at least briefly halt its attacks in order to aid civilians.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is now heading to the region for talks in Israel and Jordan, after President Joe Biden suggested a humanitarian “pause” in the Gaza fighting to let in aid for Palestinians and let out more foreign nationals.
Roughly 800 people — including hundreds of Palestinians with foreign passports and dozens of wounded — have been allowed to leave Gaza over the past two days, under an apparent agreement among the US, Egypt, Israel and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas.
An airstrike smashed a residential building to rubble in the Bureij refugee camp several miles south of Gaza City. One boy, his face covered in blood, cried as workers dug him out of the dirt and wreckage. Others rushed wounded men and women, covered in dust, away on stretchers or wrapped in blankets. At a nearby hospital, doctors tried to stanch the flow of blood from the head of a child laid out on the floor.
At least 15 people were killed, Gaza’s Civil Defence spokesperson said, and residents said dozens more were believed buried. The strike took place in the southern zone to which Israel has told residents of the north to flee.
Israel did not immediately respond to Biden’s suggestion of a humanitarian pause. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously ruled out a ceasefire, vowing to destroy Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip after its militants killed hundreds of men, women and children on October 7 and took some 240 people captive.
Arab countries, including those allied with the US and at peace with Israel, have expressed mounting unease with the war. Jordan recalled its ambassador from Israel and told Israel’s envoy to remain out of the country until there’s a halt to the war and the “humanitarian catastrophe” it is causing.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks to reporters. Photo / AP
Blinken’s new foray
The US has pledged unwavering support for Israel in its campaign against Hamas.
But the Biden administration has pushed for Israel to let more aid into Gaza amid growing alarm in the region over the destruction and humanitarian crisis in the tiny Mediterranean enclave.
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More than 3700 Palestinian children have been killed in 25 days of fighting, and three weeks of bombings that often level large swaths of neighborhoods have driven more than half the territory’s 2.3 million people from their homes. Food, water and fuel are running low under Israel’s siege.
Israel and the US also seem to have no clear plan for what would come next if Hamas rule in Gaza is brought down — a key question on Blinken’s agenda on his upcoming visit, according to the State Department.
Earlier in the week, Blinken suggested that the Palestinian Authority govern Gaza. Hamas drove the authority’s forces out of Gaza in its 2007 takeover of the territory. The PA now holds limited powers in some parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
A senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, dismissed Blinken’s visit, saying the US aims “to give more cover for the vicious assault on Gaza” and “impose its own political solutions”.
Palestinians cross to the Egyptian side of the border crossing with the Gaza Strip. Photo / AP
More departures from Gaza
On Thursday, 342 Palestinians with foreign passports, 21 injured in the fighting, and an additional 21 companions, left Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, according to Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. At least 335 people with foreign passports, and 76 injured and their companions, were evacuated on Wednesday, he said.
Their departure came after weeks of talks. It was first time people left Gaza other than four hostages released by Hamas and another rescued by Israeli forces. Israel has also allowed more than 260 trucks carrying food and medicine through the crossing, but aid workers say it’s not nearly enough.
The US has said it is trying to evacuate 400 Americans with their families.
Egypt has said it will not accept an influx of Palestinian refugees, fearing Israel will not allow them to return to Gaza after the war.
Palestinians look for survivors in the rubble of a destroyed building following an Israeli airstrike. Photo / AP
Moving on Gaza city
The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Herzi Halevy, said his forces were encircling Gaza City from several directions and “fighting in a built-up, dense, complex area”.
Israeli troops pushed into Gaza in larger numbers over the weekend. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain in the path of the fighting in northern Gaza, despite Israel’s repeated calls for them to evacuate to the territory’s south, which is also being bombarded.
Palestinian militants fired anti-tank missiles, set off explosive devices and hurled grenades at Israeli troops during an overnight battle, the Israeli military said. It said soldiers returned fire and called in artillery and strikes. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Casualties on both sides are expected to rise as Israeli troops advance toward the dense residential neighborhoods of Gaza City. Israeli officials say Hamas’ military infrastructure, including tunnels, is concentrated in the city and accuse Hamas of hiding among civilians.
At least 9061 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and minors, and more than 32,000 people have been wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry said, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters. The death toll is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence, and is around four times the figure from the 2014 Gaza war, which lasted more than six weeks.
-Wafaa Shurafa, Jack Jeffery, and Lee Keath, Associated Press
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