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 has said it has 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 trying to find ways to ease the plight of the 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 can be no temporary cease-fire until all hostages held by Hamas are released.
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.
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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 12 people were killed at the school and another 50 people wounded. Some 18,000 Palestinians had been sheltering there.
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 per cent of the population, have fled their homes, according to the U.N.
'Nowhere is safe': U.N. Secretary-General
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.
Adly Abu Taha, a Gaza City resident who has sheltered in the hospital grounds for the past three weeks, said strikes have repeatedly hit close to the hospital in recent days.
“The bombardment gets closer day by day,” he said over the phone. “We don’t know where to go.”
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 Israel 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.
Blinken seeks more aid
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.
Arab leaders have thus far resisted American suggestions that they play a larger role in crisis, expressing outrage at the civilian toll of the Israeli military operations but believing Gaza to be a problem largely of Israel’s own making.
Canadians stuck in Gaza could leave as soon as Sunday
Ottawa is continuing to work to get hundred of Canadians out of Gaza who have been trapped since the Oct. 7 attack.
Global Affairs Canada (GAC) says it was informed by Israel’s military that more than 400 people with ties to the country will be able to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing in the coming days. Federal officials say it could be as early as Sunday.
“I spoke with my Israeli counterpart @elicoh1 (Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen) and received assurances that Canadians and their families will be able to leave Gaza beginning in the coming days,” Joly said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Thursday night.
“My Egyptian counterpart confirmed their cooperation. GAC will communicate the latest information directly with Canadians.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed Joly’s comments.
“We are working with all of our regional officials and our allies to make sure that Canadians come out to safety hopefully in the coming days,” Trudeau told reporters in Washington on Friday.
“We’ve been there from the very beginning for people leaving the West Bank, for people leaving Israel since Oct. 7. We will continue to be there to help Canadians and their families get to safety.”
GAC noted consular officials will facilitate transportation to Cairo once people are in Egypt, but they will only be allowed to stay in the country for up to three days.
The federal government says it will offer food, accommodation and basic necessities for people crossing into Egypt.
Trudeau renewed the call for a humanitarian pause in Gaza on Wednesday, saying the “price of justice” for Israel seeking to eliminate Hamas for its deadly Oct. 7 attack can’t be the “continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians.”
“We are deeply concerned by the catastrophic impact on the population in Gaza, particularly among children, which is why we are calling for humanitarian aid and water and fuel to flow into Gaza,” he said.
“We’re calling on humanitarian pauses to allow that to happen.”
Casualty number rising
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.
–with files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea