RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli ground troops have advanced to “the gates of Gaza City” in heavy fighting with militants, the military said Wednesday, as hundreds of foreign nationals and dozens of seriously injured Palestinians were allowed to leave Gaza after more than three weeks under siege.
The news came as U.S. President Joe Biden called for a humanitarian “pause” in the fighting. Biden was speaking at a Minneapolis campaign fundraiser when a protester interrupted him, calling for a cease-fire.
“I think we need a pause,” Biden responded. White House officials later said a break in fighting would allow more aid to get into Gaza and create a possibility for more hostages held by Hamas to be freed.
The first people to leave Gaza — other than four hostages released by Hamas and another rescued by Israeli forces — crossed into Egypt, escaping the territory’s growing misery as bombings drive hundreds of thousands from their homes, and food, water and fuel run low.
The U.S. State Department said some American citizens were among those who left, without giving specifics. It said it expected more Americans and other foreign nationals to get out of Gaza in coming days. Talks were reportedly ongoing among Egypt, Israel and Qatar, which has been mediating with Hamas.
Heavy airstrikes demolished apartment buildings for the second day in a row in the densely populated Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City. Al Jazeera television showed wounded people, including children, being brought to a hospital.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Israel and Jordan on Friday – his second trip to the region since the war was sparked by Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel. Blinken aims to reiterate U.S. support for Israel, but also to push to ensure humanitarian aid reaches Palestinians in Gaza.
In a sign of increasing alarm over the war among Arab countries, Jordan — a key U.S. ally with a peace deal with Israel — recalled its ambassador from Israel and told Israel’s ambassador to remain out of the country.
Deputy Prime Minister Ayman al-Safadi said the return of the ambassadors is linked to Israel “stopping its war on Gaza … and the humanitarian catastrophe it is causing.”
ISRAELI ARMY ADVANCES DEEPER
Brig Gen. Itzik Cohen, commander of the 162nd Armored Division, said his troops were deep in Gaza. “We are located at the gates of Gaza City.”
Israeli forces appeared to be advancing on three main routes, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. research group. One thrust came from Gaza’s northeast corner. Another south of Gaza City cut across the territory, reaching the main north-south highway.
The third from Gaza’s northwest corner had moved about 3 miles (5 kilometers) down the Mediterranean coast, reaching the outskirts of the Shati and Jabaliya refugee camps on the edges of Gaza City.
Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group reported clashes with Israeli troops in several locations. Hamas’ armed wing posted video purporting to show its fighters emerging from tunnels and firing rockets at Israeli tanks.
The Israeli military said its airstrikes killed the head of Hamas’ anti-tank rocket unit in Gaza.
Several hundred thousand Palestinians remain in northern Gaza in the path of the fighting. 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.
The toll was not known from the strikes Wednesday in Jabaliya. Airstrikes in the same area killed or wounded hundreds, according to the director of a nearby hospital. Israel said those strikes destroyed Hamas tunnels beneath the buildings and killed dozens of fighters.
Rocket fire by Gaza militants into Israel has continued, disrupting life for millions of people and forcing an estimated 250,000 people to evacuate towns in northern and southern Israel. Most rockets are intercepted.
BORDER OPENS TO ALLOW SOME PEOPLE OUT
By midafternoon Wednesday, 335 foreign passport holders left Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority.
Seventy-six Palestinian patients, along with their companions, have been evacuated for treatment in Egypt, Abu Omar said.
The authority said the plan was for more than 400 foreign passport holders to leave for Egypt. The White House said it expected a “handful” of American citizens to be among them, and German, French, British and Australian officials said their citizens were among the evacuees.
Hundreds more remain in Gaza. 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.
BIDEN URGES “PAUSE”
Biden’s call for a “pause” was a subtle departure for White House policymakers, who have insisted they will not dictate how the Israelis carry out military operations. The White House has, however, been signaling that Israel should consider humanitarian pauses to allow more aid into Gaza and for trapped foreign nationals to leave. Biden’s new comments put pressure on Netanyahu to give Gaza’s civilians at least a brief reprieve.
“A pause means give time to get the prisoners out,” Biden said at the Minneapolis fundraiser for his 2024 reelection campaign.
HOSPITALS WARN OF DEPLETING FUEL
Over half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes, and supplies of food, medicine, water and fuel are running low.
Hospitals in Gaza expressed increasing alarm that the generators running life-saving equipment were dangerously low on fuel after weeks of siege.
Only hours of electricity remained at Gaza City’s largest hospital, Shifa, according to its director, Mohammed Abu Salmia, who pleaded for “whoever has a liter of diesel in his home” to donate it.
The Turkish-Palestinian Hospital, Gaza’s only facility offering specialized treatment for cancer patients, was forced to shut down because of lack of fuel, leaving 70 cancer patients in a critical situation, the Health Ministry said.
The World Health Organization said the lack of fuel puts at risk 1,000 patients on kidney dialysis, 130 premature babies in incubators, as well as cancer patients and patients on ventilators.
The Israeli military released a recording of what it said was a Hamas military commander forcing a hospital to give some fuel. The recording could not be independently verified.
DEATH TOLL KEEPS RISING
More than 8,800 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and minors, and more than 22,000 people have been wounded, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Wednesday, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters. The figure is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Over 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack, also an unprecedented figure. Palestinian militants also abducted around 240 people during their incursion and have continued firing rockets into Israel.
Sixteen Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the ground operation.
An estimated 800,000 Palestinians have fled south from northern Gaza following Israeli evacuation orders, but hundreds of thousands remain.
Israel has allowed more than 260 trucks carrying food and medicine to enter from Egypt over the past 10 days, but aid workers say it’s not nearly enough.
AFTER WAR, THEN WHAT?
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas’ ability to govern Gaza or threaten Israel. But it has said little about who would govern Gaza afterwards.
During his visit Friday, Blinken wants to discuss those issues with Israel and Jordan, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. To that end, Blinken will push Israeli officials on reining in violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and will restate U.S. backing for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, he said.
On Tuesday, Blinken suggested President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority could govern Gaza.
Hamas drove the authority’s forces out of Gaza in heavy fighting in 2007, leaving it with limited control over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and little Palestinian support.
In other developments Wednesday:
— Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired “a large batch of drones” toward Israel, Brig. Gen. Yahya Sarea, a Houthi spokesman, said on social media. The announcement came one day after the Houthis said their forces had targeted Israel with at least three missile and drone attacks. The Houthi involvement brings Iran, a longtime sponsor of the Houthis, Hamas and the Lebanese militia group Hezbolla, even closer to the war.
Jeffery and Keath reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Amy Teibel in Jerusalem, Samy Magdy in Cairo, Chris Megerian in Minneapolis and Matthew Lee and Aaamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.
Full AP coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.