Airstrikes pound Gaza as aid remains stalled


Israeli military forces on Friday continued pounding the Gaza Strip with heavy airstrikes, slamming areas in the south where Palestinians had been told to seek safety, prompting many to return north as hundreds of trucks packed with humanitarian aid stayed piled up at the Egypt-Gaza border.

“Airstrikes, coupled with extremely difficult living conditions in the south, appear to have pushed some to return to the north, despite the continuing heavy bombing there,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Friday.

Shamdasani told reporters the U.N. human rights office heard from some of the roughly one million people who’ve evacuated to the south, including one unidentified Palestinian who said, “I might as well die in my own house.”

An untold number of Palestinians were killed and wounded in an explosion at a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City late Thursday. The precise death toll has not yet been determined as bodies were still under rubble.

At the Egyptian border, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters that “restrictions” are preventing humanitarian aid from entering Gaza, which has been cut off by Israel from food, water, fuel and electricity since Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attack.

“We are actively engaging with all the parties in order to clarify these restrictions so we can have these trucks moving towards where they’re needed. We need these trucks moving as soon as possible,” said Guterres, adding: “We have two million people here who are suffering tremendously.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, on Friday wrote on X, “We hope the Rafah crossing will open today. More delays will result in more suffering and more deaths.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday told troops at the Gaza border that they would soon see the Palestinian enclave “from inside,” Reuters reported. He urged the forces to “get organized, be ready” for an order to move, suggesting an impending Israeli ground invasion. Israel also evacuated a sizable Israeli town in the north, near the Lebanese border.

The death toll of Israelis and Palestinians surpassed 5,000, making the conflict the deadliest of five wars involving the narrow, densely populated strip of land bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

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Latest developments:

∎ The Israel Defense Ministry in a statement Friday said the majority of the 200 people taken hostage by Hamas are still alive, according to CNN. The IDF said about 10-20 of the hostages are over the age of 60; over 20 are under the age of 18.

∎ The UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestine refugees, issued a statement on X on Friday saying two workers were killed in Gaza. Since the war began, there have been a total of 16 UNRWA workers killed. “UNRWA continues to advocate for adherence to international humanitarian law – @UN staff and civilians must be protected at all times,” the agency said.

∎ Spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasani on Friday said 14 Palestinians were reportedly killed in a drone strike on Thursday.

President Joe Biden will detail a request to Congress on Friday to pay for more weapons for Ukraine, buy new equipment for the American military to replace what it has sent Kyiv and replenish the Iron Dome air defense system that protects Israel.

Biden plans to request more than $98 billion in emergency funding for the wars in Israel and Ukraine, to beef up U.S. border security and provide assistance for other international crises, according to a source familiar with the funding request who asked for anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak publicly.

The source said Biden wants $60 billion for the war in Ukraine, with half of the money going toward replenishing U.S. military stockpiles. Biden is also seeking $14 billion for Israel and $14 billion for the U.S. border as part of the request, which includes money for the Indo-Pacific and $10 billion for humanitarian assistance.

The aid package, however, cannot pass through Congress until the House of Representatives names a speaker. The chamber has been without a speaker for more than two weeks, since lawmakers ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the position during a vote triggered by a group of conservative rebels. Republicans have been unable to elect a successor for McCarthy, bringing the business of the House to a standstill.

Biden, during a primetime address from the White House on Thursday evening, argued that U.S. leadership abroad and congressional aid to both countries is essential.

“Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: they both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy,” Biden said.

– Francesca Chambers

An explosion at a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City late Thursday resulted in casualties and injuries along with displacing Palestinians who were taking refuge there. 

Mohammed Abu Selmia, director general of Shifa Hospital, told The Associated Press that dozens were wounded at the Church of Saint Porphyrios but could not give a precise death toll because bodies were still under the rubble. The Holy Orthodox Order of the Holy Great Martyr George confirmed the blast, adding that more than 500 people were being housed at the church and monastery.

“The bombs hit the two church halls where the refugees, including children and babies, were sleeping. Presently, survivors are searching the rubble for other casualties,” the order said in a statement Thursday. 

The blast comes after an explosion Tuesday that rocked the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, in whose compound many Palestinians had been seeking refuge from the persistent Israeli bombardment. According to a preliminary U.S. intelligence analysis, the death toll was on the “low end” of 100 to 300.

Human Rights Watch has accused Western states like the U.S. and Europe of “double standards” for their failure to condemn Israel’s war crimes in the Gaza conflict.

The agency said American and European governments quickly condemned war violations by Russian forces, including surprise attacks, unlawful killings, and torture. Eighteen months later, Hamas was denounced for the surprise assault on Israel. But since Oct. 7, these states have been mostly silent about Israel’s actions in Gaza, HRW said in a statement.

“Where is the outrage at statements by Israeli political leaders that seek to blur the all-important distinction between civilians and combatants in Gaza even as they order ever more intense bombardment of this densely populated territory, reducing city blocks and neighborhoods to rubble?” said HRW Deputy Program Director Tom Porteous. “Where are the clear and unequivocal calls for Israel to respect international norms in its attack on Gaza, let alone for accountability?”

The agency said the Western state’s hypocrisy is “flagrant and obvious,” and they risk undermining years of humanitarian efforts to standardize norms that protect civilians during times of conflict.

The Israel Defense Forces, also known as the IDF, is the national military of Israel. It has three branches: the army, navy and air force. It is a conscripted military service, meaning Israel mandates IDF service for Jewish, Druze and Circassian citizens over the age of 18, with some exceptions. It was established in 1948, two weeks after Israel became an independent country.

Before the war began, the IDF had 169,500 active troops and was the 28th largest military in the world by active personnel, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2023. There were also 465,000 reserve personnel to supplement active military forces if deemed necessary. Read more here.

− Olivia Munson

Hamas – an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, or the Islamic resistance movement – was founded in 1987 by activists connected to the Muslim Brotherhood during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The State Department designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1997, and several other nations also consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

In 2006, Hamas won parliamentary elections, and in 2007 the group violently seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, which was controlled by the rival Fatah movement that still governs the West Bank. There have been no elections since. The group calls for the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state that would replace the current state of Israel and believes in the use of violence to carry out the destruction of Israel.

Hamas receives financial, material, and logistical support from Iran. So far, however, the U.S. and other nations have said there is no evidence that Iran was directly involved in Hamas’ attack.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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