DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops fought with Hamas militants on the edges of Gaza City on Thursday, as the Palestinian death toll rose above 9,000. After nearly four weeks of war sparked by Hamas’ deadly rampage in Israel, U.S. 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.
U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken was heading to the region for talks Friday 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 U.S., Egypt, Israel and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas.
An airstrike Thursday 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 Defense 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 cease-fire, vowing to destroy Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip after its militants killed hundreds of men, women and children on Oct. 7 and took some 240 people captive.
Arab countries, including those allied with the U.S. 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.
A flurry of heavy explosions raised clouds of smoke over Gaza City on Thursday. Al-Jazeera television, which continues to broadcast from the city, said Israeli airstrikes were hitting an area of apartment towers in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood.
The barrage hit around 100 meters (yards) from Al-Quds Hospital, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said in post on X. It said there were deaths and injuries but gave no more details.
There was no immediate comment by the Israel military on the strikes. Israel says it targets Hamas fighters and infrastructure and that the group endangers civilians by operating among them and in tunnels under civilian areas.
BLINKEN’S NEW FORAY
The U.S. 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.
More than 3,700 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 U.S. 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 U.S. aims “to give more cover for the vicious assault on Gaza” and “impose its own political solutions.”
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 U.S. 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.
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 antitank missiles, set off explosive devices and hurled grenades at Israeli troops during an overnight battle, the Israeli military said Thursday. 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 9,061 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 Thursday, 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 over six weeks.
Four Palestinians, including three teenagers, were shot dead in different parts of the occupied West Bank early Thursday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the start of the war, mainly in violent protests and gunbattles during Israeli arrest raids.
An Israeli reserve soldier died after a suspected militant opened fire on his car near a settlement in the West Bank on Thursday, the military and medics said.
Over 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack, also an unprecedented figure. Twenty Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the ground operation.
Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and daily skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, has disrupted life for millions of Israelis and forced an estimated 250,000 to evacuate border towns. Most rockets are intercepted or fall in open areas.
Residents of Gaza face an increasingly dire situation amid a territory-wide blackout. The World Health Organization said the lack of fuel for hospitals’ generators puts at risk 1,000 patients on kidney dialysis, 130 premature babies in incubators, as well as cancer patients and patients on ventilators.
Israel has refused to allow fuel in, saying Hamas is hoarding fuel for military use and would steal new supplies entering.
Halevi said Wednesday that when Israel is convinced that fuel has truly run out, it would be willing to allow in new supplies with supervision to ensure it does not reach Hamas. But Netanyahu told reporters that the war cabinet “has not approved any decision” to let in fuel.