Israel applies pressure in Gaza even as Biden calls military response “exaggerated”
Israeli forces carried out deadly air strikes on Gaza on Friday, hours after US President Joe Biden called the military response to the October 7 attack on Israel by the Hamas movement, which rules the Palestinian territories, “exaggerated.”
Israel continued its air campaign as diplomats sought to salvage ceasefire talks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a Hamas proposal that also included the release of hostages held by the Palestinian armed group.
The United States hopes to ensure an end to the fighting before Israel carries out a threatened ground attack on the southern city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people live near the border with Egypt.
Palestinian health officials said at least 15 people were killed in the latest air strikes, including eight in Rafah, the last refuge for many Gazans displaced as the Israeli offensive advanced south through the narrow coastal enclave.
Salem Al-Rayes, an independent Palestinian journalist who lives in a camp for displaced people, said that children were among those killed when an Israeli missile fell on a house in a nearby area.
“They were asleep in the early hours of Friday at dawn,” he wrote on Facebook. “The explosion shook the ground beneath our feet and the sound still echoes in our ears.”
He added that the bodies of the victims “flew from the third floor before falling to the ground outside the building on cars inside the narrow alley and around neighboring houses.”
Israel did not immediately comment on the recent air strikes. It says it is taking steps to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas activists of hiding among civilians, including in school shelters and hospitals. Hamas denied doing so.
Sharp criticism from the White House
Washington warned on Thursday that any Israeli military operation launched in Rafah without due regard to the plight of civilians would be a disaster and said it would not support it.
Although the United States is Israel’s most important ally, it has urged Israel to reduce its all-out war to a more targeted campaign against Hamas leaders.
In one of his harshest public criticisms yet of Netanyahu’s government, Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday: “I see, you know, the behavior of the response in the Gaza Strip was over the top.” “.
Biden said he is pushing for an agreement to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations, increase the amount of humanitarian aid reaching Palestinian civilians, and stop the fighting for a period of time to allow the release of hostages held by Hamas.
“I’m pushing hard now to address the hostage ceasefire,” Biden said. “There are too many innocent people starving, too many innocent people getting into trouble and dying, and it has to stop.”
The Gaza Ministry of Health said on Friday that at least 27,947 Palestinians had been confirmed killed in the conflict, including 107 in the past 24 hours, and another 67,459 wounded.
It says many people remain buried under rubble from the Israeli attack — which began after Hamas militants led attacks in which 1,200 people were killed, including several Canadians. About 253 hostages were taken on October 7, according to Israeli statistics, and the plight of about 130 hostages was not known after some hostages were released and others were confirmed killed in the months that followed.
This week, Hamas proposed a four-and-a-half-month ceasefire, during which all remaining hostages would be released, Israel would withdraw its forces and an agreement would be reached on ending the war.
Its offer was a response to a proposal drawn up by US and Israeli intelligence chiefs with Qatar and Egypt and delivered to Hamas last week.
Netanyahu said on Wednesday that the conditions offered by Hamas were “fake” and pledged to continue fighting, saying victory was within reach and only months away.
Hamas says it will not agree to any agreement that does not include a cessation of war and Israeli withdrawal. Israel says it will not withdraw or stop fighting until Hamas is eliminated.
In a sign of continuing diplomatic efforts, a Hamas delegation headed by senior official Khalil al-Hayya arrived in Cairo on Thursday to hold talks with mediators Egypt and Qatar.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited the Middle East on a whirlwind trip this week to try to achieve a breakthrough and prevent the conflict from spreading further in the region.
Firefights in Gaza City
In addition to the eight people killed in Rafah on Friday, Palestinian health officials said four were killed in an air strike on a house in the central Gaza town of Zawaida and one in nearby Deir al-Balah.
Residents reported violent gun battles in Gaza City in the north, and witnesses said that the eastern parts of Khan Yunis in the south were bombed. Hamas medics and media said that an Israeli drone strike killed two people in Khan Yunis.
Philippe Lazzarini, Director-General of the United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees, stressed the increasing toll the war is taking on children in Gaza.
“Children are being deprived of their childhood. This must be reversed starting with a humanitarian ceasefire,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Israel accused 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 employees last month of participating in the October 7 attack. Nine of them have since been fired. Of the remaining three staff members, one has died, and the United Nations is clarifying the identity of the other two.