U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was meeting Israeli leaders on Friday to push for humanitarian pauses in the Gaza conflict as Israeli troops surrounded the Palestinian enclave’s biggest city, the focus of its drive to wipe out Hamas.
Israeli forces pounded the Gaza Strip from ground, sea and air throughout the night amid global alarm over scarcities, collapsing medical services and the rising civilian death toll.
Hamas and its Islamic Jihad ally said their fighters had detonated explosives against advancing troops, dropped grenades from drones, and fired mortars and anti-tank rockets in fierce urban warfare around destroyed buildings and heaps of rubble in Gaza City.
Blinken, on his second trip to Israel in a month, was to discuss with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steps to minimize harm to civilians in Hamas-ruled Gaza, where food, fuel, water and medicine are running out, buildings have been flattened, and thousands of people have fled homes to escape relentless bombing.
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The White House said any pauses in fighting should be temporary and localised. It has dismissed calls from Arab and several other nations for a full ceasefire in the war, now in its 28th day.
Hamas-run Gaza health authorities say at least 9,061 people – many of them women and children – have been killed since Israel started its assault on the enclave of 2.3 million people in retaliation for deadly attacks by Hamas militants on southern Israel.
Israel says the Iran-backed Hamas killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 240 hostages in the attacks on Oct. 7, the deadliest day of its 75-year history.
The Israeli military said its war planes, artillery and navy had struck Hamas targets overnight, killing several militants including Mustafa Dalul, a Hamas commander it said had directed combat in Gaza. There was no immediate confirmation from Hamas.
Gaza City – traditionally a Hamas stronghold – was surrounded, military spokesperson Rear-Adm. Daniel Hagari said.
“The soldiers are advancing in battles, during which they are destroying terror infrastructure above ground and below ground and eliminating terrorists,” he told a briefing.
Overnight they found large caches of weapons, protective gear, communication equipment and maps, he said.
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In one Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, a local journalist working for the official Palestine TV and at least nine of his immediate family were killed in their house, relatives and health officials said.
In one of the strongest criticisms of Israel from a European leader, Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said it had the right to defend itself and chase Hamas but the assault on Gaza also looked like it was turning into “revenge.”
The United Arab Emirates, one of a handful of Arab states with diplomatic ties to Israel, said on Friday it was working “relentlessly” for an immediate ceasefire, warning that the risk of regional spillover and further escalation was real.
Israel has dismissed these calls, saying it targets Hamas fighters whom it accuses of intentionally hiding among the population and civilian buildings.
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Blinken is due to meet Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman on Saturday. Safadi said in a statement Israel must end its declared war on Gaza, where he said it was committing war crimes by bombing civilians and imposing a siege.
The Israeli military says it works to minimize civilian casualties but that Hamas embeds itself among civilians. It said its troops and tanks were encountering mines and booby traps as they advanced in Gaza. Hamas fighters were making use of a vast underground tunnel network to stage hit-and-run attacks.
Israel says it has lost 23 soldiers in the offensive.
Abu Ubaida, spokesperson for the armed wing of Hamas, said in a televised speech that Israel’s death toll in Gaza was much higher. “Your soldiers will return in black bags,” he said.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States was flying intelligence-gathering drones over Gaza to help locate hostages.
The Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt was due to open for a third day on Friday for limited evacuations under a Qatari-brokered deal aimed at letting some foreign passport holders, their dependents and some wounded Gazans out of the enclave.
According to border officials, more than 700 foreign citizens left for Egypt via Rafah on the two previous days. Dozens of critically injured Palestinians were to cross too. Israel asked foreign countries to send hospital ships for them.
Israel also sent back around 7,000 Palestinians who had been working in Israel and the West Bank before Oct. 7 to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south. Workers said they had been detained and ill-treated by Israeli authorities.
Those who live in Gaza City and the north will have to find shelter elsewhere as the Israeli forces have cut off roads.
Israeli spokesperson Hagari said Israeli was also “highly prepared” on its northern border with Lebanon, where he said Iranian-backed militants were carrying out actions with the aim of diverting it from the war in Gaza.