Gaza Strikes Intensify as U.S. Warns Israel Over Civilian Deaths

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
Relatives of a Palestinian killed in a strike in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, mourn outside the morgue at Nasser Medical Hospital on Saturday.

AMMAN, Jordan – Israeli warplanes struck targets across Gaza on Saturday, intensifying the resumed bombardment of the enclave as hopes faded that a collapsed deal to halt the fighting could be revived.

With at least 200 people reported killed in the latest strikes, the United States also escalated pressure on Israel to do more to avert the heavy civilian casualties that are turning public sentiment worldwide against a continuation of the war.

Many of the strikes were in southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had taken refuge after the Israeli military had told them to relocate there for their safety. Israel has said that it believes Hamas commanders are also hiding there alongside civilians.

The shift in focus to the south suggested Israel is preparing to expand its ground operations beyond the Gaza City area where it has established control of some neighborhoods. Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets on several regions in southeastern Gaza ordering civilians to evacuate further west, triggering speculation that a new ground incursion from Israel could be imminent.

But there were also strikes in the northern part of the enclave, including at the much-bombed Jabalya refugee camp and in the Shejaiya neighborhood east of Gaza City, where 10 strikes killed at least 60 people and leveled dozens of apartment buildings, according to civil defense spokesman Mahmoud Basal. He said it was likely many more bodies were under the rubble, but they could not be extracted “because we don’t have equipment.”

A local Hamas commander, Wissam Farhat, was killed in the Shejaiya strikes, according to Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, who released aerial footage of the bombing. Farhat was responsible for an attack during the 2014 Gaza war that killed seven Israeli troops, he added.

Israeli troops are still encountering Hamas militants in northern Gaza, another Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said at a news conference on Saturday.

Earlier in the day, the Gaza Health Ministry said that at least 193 people were killed and 652 injured after the collapse of a week-long humanitarian pause heralded the resumption of fighting between Israel and Hamas on Friday. The ministry also issued its first updated casualty figures in three weeks, saying that a total of 15,207 people have been killed and over 40,652 injured since the outbreak of hostilities on Oct. 7. The initial Hamas attack that triggered the war killed around 1,200 people in Israel.

Amid mounting U.S. pressure to minimize civilian casualties, a senior Israeli official said the military was following a new strategy aimed at distinguishing between Hamas fighters and ordinary people.

“We will do everything we can to keep civilians out of the crossfire between Israeli forces and Hamas,” said Mark Regev, senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Vice President Harris, speaking in Dubai where she is attending the COP28 climate conference, said Israel needs to try harder.

“Far too many Palestinian civilians have been killed and Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians,” she told a news conference, calling the suffering “truly heartbreaking.” She noted that Israeli bombardments had killed around 200 people on the first day of the resumption of hostilities. “Is that minimizing harm to civilian life? Is that acceptable?” Harris asked.

“As Israel defends itself, it matters how,” she added.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also weighed in, warning Israel in stark terms on Saturday that a failure to protect civilians will undermine its war efforts against Hamas. “In this kind of fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population,” Austin told a defense forum in Simi Valley, Calif. “And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

The IDF reported hitting 400 targets in the 24 hours after the collapse of the pause, suggesting that this second phase of the war will be no less intense than the first. At least 50 strikes were carried out in and around the southern town of Khan Younis, the IDF said, signaling the expansion of the campaign to the south.

The seven-day pause had brought a respite from seven weeks of fighting, enabling the release by Hamas of 134 hostages, most of them Israelis, in return for around 400 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel under a deal mediated mainly by Qatar.

The negotiations involving Qatari, Israeli and U.S. officials had continued in the Qatari capital, Doha, even after the fighting resumed, and Israeli military officials had indicated a readiness to implement another pause if mediators could persuade Hamas to release more hostages.

But later Saturday, Israel announced that Netanyahu had recalled the Israeli negotiators, saying the talks on further hostage releases had reached an “impasse.”

A statement from Netanyahu’s office blamed Hamas for the failure, saying that the militant group had failed to implement an agreement to release all the women and children it kidnapped.

Hamas also said there would be no further hostage exchanges with Israel until the Gaza war is over. The group’s deputy head, Saleh al-Arouri, told Al Jazeera that the only hostages Hamas has left are soldiers and civilians who were serving in the army, and that all the women and children have already been released.

“Israeli prisoners will not be released until our prisoners are freed and after a cease-fire comes into effect,” Arouri said, referring to Palestinians held by Israel.

Israeli officials meanwhile indicated that this second phase of the war would continue until Israel had achieved its goal of eradicating Hamas.

“The war will be ongoing for whatever time it takes to completely destroy Hamas and get back the hostages,” Israeli government spokesman Ofir Gendelman told reporters Saturday.

Lerner said the IDF used the pause in fighting to resupply and study its strategy for a “long war” that is “not bound by time.”

The renewed violence has brought fresh misery to the over 2 million residents of Gaza, swamping the territory’s crippled hospitals with scores of new injuries as the United Nations warns that medical supplies are running out.

The strikes instilled new panic among civilians who had escaped from the north in the belief they would be safer there and now are confronted with new evacuation orders.

The Israeli plan for avoiding civilian casualties appeared to involve a new map dividing Gaza into scores of small, numbered zones, which residents will be ordered to move among as the fighting shifts. There were also leaflets dropped in the north Saturday instructing residents to relocate from some zones to others.

People who have already been displaced multiple times said they were confused and now believe nowhere is safe.

“Every time they say, ‘Move to a safe place,’ and when we move we find it’s not safe,” said Najwa Khalil, 36, a mother of two. She said she relocated with her family on Saturday for the fourth time since the war began, initially from the north to the south, and most recently from the Qahara neighborhood east of Khan Younis to the western edge of the city after receiving a recorded warning from the Israelis to move.

Khalil said she and her family were now cowering in a single room listening to intense bombardments nearby. “I don’t know, literally, where to go. It is terrifying and unbearable,” she said.

The U.N. humanitarian affairs agency criticized the “evacuation zone map” for lacking clarity as to where residents were supposed to evacuate to, and saying it was unclear how residents were supposed to access the map given that many lack electricity.

The delivery of humanitarian supplies resumed on Saturday after being suspended on Friday, but at a lower level than was the case during the pause, with 100 aid trucks entering Gaza across the border with Egypt, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

U.N. officials have also warned that Gazans are at risk of dying of hunger and disease as the medical system deteriorates and food runs short, raising fears that the expanding violence combined with a humanitarian crisis will force an exodus of Gaza residents to neighboring Egypt, something Egypt has said it will not allow.

Harris told Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi at a meeting in Dubai on Saturday that the United States would not permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza, or the West Bank, where violence has also been intensifying.

She added that the United States will also not accept the “besiegement” of Gaza or the redrawing of the borders of Gaza, calling for “a clear political horizon for the Palestinian people towards a state of their own,” according to a White House statement.