U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appealed to Israel on Friday to take steps to protect civilians in Gaza as its forces kept up their bombardment of the Palestinian enclave and the death toll among residents soared.
The Israeli military said its troops were fighting Hamas militants in close-quarter combat in the ruined streets after encircling Gaza City in their bid to wipe out the Islamist group that controls the small, densely populated territory.
Israeli forces also pounded Gaza from ground, sea and air throughout the night amid rising global alarm over scarcities, collapsing medical services and a civilian death toll that has now surpassed 9,000.
Blinken was visiting the region for the second time in less than a month to show support for close ally Israel in its response to the Oct. 7 Hamas militant attack on southern Israeli communities that killed some 1,400 people and triggered the war.
Speaking before meeting Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Blinken reiterated that Israel has a right to “do everything possible” to ensure that such an attack never happened again.
But he added: “It is very important when it comes to protection of civilians who are caught in the crossfire of Hamas’s making, that everything be done to protect them and to bring assistance to those who so desperately need it, who are not in any way responsible for what happened on Oct. 7.”
Washington has dismissed calls from Arab and several other nations for a full ceasefire in the war – now in its 28th day – but wants more temporary and local pauses in fighting to allow aid to get into Gaza and for hostages taken by Hamas to leave.
Food, fuel, water and medicine are running out in Gaza, buildings have been flattened and thousands of people have fled their homes to escape relentless bombing.
Aid agencies have warned that a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in the bloodiest episode in decades in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Blinken also spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for almost an hour before both met with members of Israel’s emergency cabinet, formed after the Hamas assault.
Gaza health authorities say at least 9,227 people – many of them women and children – have been killed since Israel started its blitz on the enclave of 2.3 million people in retaliation for the Hamas rampage in southern Israel.
Israel says the Iran-backed Hamas killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 240 hostages in the deadliest day of its 75-year history.
The Israeli military said its troops and tanks were encountering mines and booby traps as they advanced in Gaza. Hamas fighters were making use of a vast underground tunnel network to stage hit-and-run attacks.
It said Israeli war planes, artillery and navy had struck Hamas targets overnight, killing several militants including Mustafa Dalul, a Hamas commander it said had directed combat in Gaza. There was no immediate confirmation from Hamas.
Gaza City – traditionally a Hamas bastion – was surrounded, military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.
“The soldiers are advancing in battles, during which they are destroying terror infrastructure above ground and below ground and eliminating terrorists,” he told a briefing.
Another spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, said they were in a complex urban battle. “It’s very, very close quarter combat between our troops and Hamas operatives.”
Israel says it has lost 23 soldiers in the offensive.
Hamas and its Islamic Jihad ally said their fighters had detonated explosives against advancing troops, dropped grenades from drones, and fired mortars and anti-tank rockets in fierce urban warfare around destroyed buildings and heaps of rubble.
In one Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, a local journalist working for the official Palestine TV and at least nine of his immediate family were killed in their house, relatives and health officials said.
The United Arab Emirates, one of a handful of Arab states with diplomatic ties to Israel, said on Friday it was working “relentlessly” for an immediate ceasefire, warning that the risk of regional spillover and further escalation was real.
Israel has dismissed these calls, saying it targets Hamas fighters whom it accuses of hiding among Gaza’s population and civilian buildings.
Blinken is due to meet Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman on Saturday. Safadi said in a statement Israel must end the war on Gaza, where he said it was committing war crimes by bombing civilians and imposing a siege.
The Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt was due to open for a third day on Friday for limited evacuations under a Qatari-brokered deal aimed at letting some foreign passport holders, their dependents and some wounded Gazans out of the enclave.
According to border officials, more than 700 foreign citizens left for Egypt via Rafah on the two previous days. Dozens of critically injured Palestinians were to cross too.
Israel also sent back around 7,000 Palestinians who had been working in Israel and the West Bank before Oct. 7 to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south. Workers said they had been detained and ill-treated by Israeli authorities.
Hagari said Israel was also “highly prepared” on its northern border with Lebanon, where he said Iranian-backed militants were carrying out actions with the aim of diverting it from the war in Gaza.
The United Nations rights office on Friday described the situation in the occupied West Bank as “alarming”, saying Israeli forces were increasingly using military tactics and weapons in law enforcement operations there.
At least 132 Palestinians, including 41 children, were killed in the West Bank, 124 by Israeli forces and eight by Israeli settlers, it said. Two Israeli soldiers were also killed.
Palestinians trapped in Gaza City hoped that a truce could be reached soon.
“Does the world wait for hundreds of thousands who refuse to leave their homes, who have no guilt but that they don’t want to leave their country, to be massacred by Israel?” said one.