RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli military strikes killed multiple civilians Saturday at a U.N. shelter and hospital in the main combat zone in the Gaza Strip as the assault intensified on the besieged enclave’s Hamas rulers, amid growing international uproar over the soaring death toll and deepening humanitarian crisis.
Israel’s military said it had encircled Gaza City, the target of its offensive to crush Hamas, but on Saturday offered a three-hour window for residents trapped by the fighting to flee south.
The new attacks came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the region seeking ways to ease the plight of civilians caught in the fighting. He met with Arab foreign ministers on Saturday in Jordan, the day after talks in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted there could be no temporary cease-fire until all hostages held by Hamas are released.
Egyptian officials said they and Qatar were proposing humanitarian pauses for six to 12 hours daily to allow aid in and casualties to be evacuated. They were also asking for Israel to release a number of women and elderly prisoners in exchange for hostages held by Hamas - suggestions Israel seems unlikely to accept. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press on the discussions.
The Israeli military has repeatedly demanded that northern Gaza’s 1.1 million residents flee south as it escalates bombardment of the north and tightens the noose around Gaza City. However, some of those traveling south were killed during their journey in recent days, and Israel has continued bombing in the south, saying it is striking Hamas targets.
With wide swaths of residential neighborhoods leveled in airstrikes, most of northern Gaza’s remaining residents, estimated at around 300,000, have sought shelter in U.N.-run schools and in hospitals where they hope they’ll be safe. But deadly Israeli strikes have also repeatedly hit and damaged those shelters.
On Saturday, two strikes hit a U.N. school-turned-shelter just north of Gaza City, killing several people in tents in the schoolyard and women who were baking bread inside the building, according to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.
Initial reports indicated that 20 people were killed but the agency has not yet been able to verify the figure, said spokeswoman Juliette Touma.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza reported that 15 people were killed at the school where thousands have sought shelter and another 70 people wounded.
Also Saturday, two people were killed in a strike by the gate of Nasser Hospital in Gaza City, according to Medhat Abbas, spokesman for the Health Ministry.
About 1.5 million people in Gaza, or 70% of the population, have fled their homes, according to the U.N.
With food, water and the fuel needed for generators that power hospitals and other facilities running out, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged an immediate cease-fire to allow aid in.
“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is horrific,” Guterres said late Friday in an unusually blunt statement. “An entire population is traumatized, nowhere is safe.”
Guterres said he had not forgotten the slaughter of civilians at the hands of Hamas militants when they launched their attack on Israel almost a month ago, but said civilians and civilian infrastructure must be protected. He also said civilians must not be used as human shields, and called upon Hamas to release all of the roughly 240 hostages it has.
The family home of Hamas’ exiled leader Ismail Haniyeh, in the Shati refugee camp on the northern edge of Gaza City, was hit Saturday morning by an airstrike, according to the Hamas-run media office in Gaza. It had no immediate details on damage or casualties and there was no immediate comment.
Overnight strikes also hit the western outskirts of the city and near Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City. Another strike hit a building close to the entrance of the hospital’s emergency ward on Saturday afternoon, injuring at least 21, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.
Despite Israel’s call for civilians to flee south, strikes have continued there as well.
Raed Mattar, who was sheltering in a school in the southern town of Khan Younis after fleeing the north early in the war, said Saturday that he regularly heard explosions, apparently from airstrikes.
“People never sleep,” he said. “The sound of explosions never stops.”
In the center of Khan Younis, an airstrike early Saturday destroyed the home of a family, with first responders pulling three bodies and six injured people from the rubble.
Among those killed was a child, according to an Associated Press cameraman at the scene.
The Israeli military said ground forces were also now operating in the south, with an armored and engineering corps working to remove booby traps from buildings.
During the operation the military said fighters were seen exiting a tunnel and they were killed by Israeli troops.
The military said there were also numerous attacks staged from tunnels on Israeli forces in the northern Gaza strip.
Elsewhere, skirmishes along Israel’s northern border continued Saturday morning as the Israeli military said it had struck militant cells in Lebanon trying to fire at Israel, as well as a Hezbollah observation post.
Throughout the war, Israel and Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, have traded fire almost daily along the Lebanese border, raising fears of a new front opening there.
On Friday in Tel Aviv, on his third trip to Israel since the war began, Blinken pushed President Joe Biden’s calls for a brief halt in the fighting to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. But Netanyahu said there could be no humanitarian pause until Hamas releases all the hostages it holds.
On Saturday he held meetings in Amman with diplomats from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority, who remain angry and deeply suspicious of Israel.
In addition to aid distribution, allowing foreigners out and the release of hostages, Blinken is looking to get Jordan and other Arab states to begin to think about the future of Gaza if and when Israel succeeds in wresting control from Hamas.
There was consensus among Arab governments involved in discussions with the U.S. to resist “any talks” on the postwar period in Gaza before establishing a cease-fire and allowing the delivery of more humanitarian aid and fuel to Gaza, according to the Egyptian officials.
More than 9,400 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza so far, including more than 3,900 Palestinian children, the Gaza Health Ministry said, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters.
More than 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack. Rocket fire by Gaza militants into Israel persists, disrupting life for millions of people and forcing an estimated 250,000 to evacuate. Most rockets are intercepted.
Twenty-four Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the ground operation.
The overall toll is likely to rise dramatically as the assault on densely built-up Gaza City continues.
More than 386 Palestinian dual nationals and wounded exited Gaza into Egypt on Friday, according to Wael Abou Omar, the Hamas spokesperson for the Rafah border crossing. That brings the total who have gotten out since Wednesday to 1,115.
Magdy reported from Cairo, Rising reported from Bangkok. Matthew Lee in Amman, Jordan and Julia Frankel and Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this story.