Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed back against growing pressure from the US for a humanitarian pause in its war on Hamas to protect civilians and get more aid into Gaza, saying there will be no temporary ceasefire until all hostages are released.
Flying into Tel Aviv on Friday, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, sought to urge the Israeli prime minister to let-up the military offensive, at least for a time. However, Mr Netanyahu said that Israel will continue “with full force” unless Hamas releases more than 240 hostages.
It comes as an ambulance was struck outside Gaza’s largest hospital, al-Shifa, in Gaza City. The health ministry in the Hamas-run strip said that it was part of a convoy that was seeking to evacuate the wounded from northern Gaza to the south and that “several citizens were killed and dozens wounded”.
The Israeli military said that they had struck an ambulance in Gaza City “being used by a Hamas terrorist cell” in the battle zone. It said a number of Hamas fighters had been killed in the strike and accused the group of transferring both militants and weapons in ambulances. The military said it intended to release further information. “Civilians in the area are repeatedly called upon to evacuate southwards for their own safety,” the military said.
World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a social media post he was “utterly shocked by reports of attacks on ambulances evacuating patients”, adding that patients, health workers and medical facilities must be protected.
Israel's military has previously accused Hamas of concealing command centres and tunnel entrances at the al-Shifa hospital.
Earlier in the day, the health ministry in Gaza released a statement urging the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to accompany the convoy.
Israel began a bombing campaign on Gaza in the wake of an attack into southern Israel by Hamas on 7 October, where 1,400 people were killed and hostages were taken. The military offensive has ramped up over the last week, with Israeli forces surrounding Gaza City and conducting operations inside. More than 9,200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza so far, two thirds of them women and minors, the health ministry has said, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters.
Alarm has grown over spiraling Palestinian deaths and deepening misery for civilians from weeks of Israeli bombardment and a widening ground assault that risks even greater casualties. Overwhelmed hospitals say they are nearing collapse, with medicine and fuel running low under the Israeli siege. About 1.5 million people in Gaza, or 70 per dent of the population, have fled their homes, the UN said on Friday.
In Tel Aviv, Mr Blinken – visiting the Middle East for the second time in a month – said: “A number of legitimate questions were raised in our discussions today including how to use any period of pause to maximise the flow of humanitarian assistance, how to connect the pause to the release of hostages, how to ensure that Hamas doesn’t use these pauses or arrangements to its own advantage.”
“These are issues that we need to tackle urgently, and we believe they can be solved,” he added.
However, speaking shortly after Mr Blinken, Mr Netanyahu said in a televised statement:. “I made clear that we are continuing full force and that Israel refuses a temporary ceasefire which does not include the release of our hostages.”
On the ground, Lt Col Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for the Israeli military, said Israel had “completed the encirclement of Gaza City” and were now engaged in a complex urban fight.
“It’s very, very close-quarter combat between our troops and Hamas operatives… It’s guerrilla warfare. It’s people popping out of tunnels.”
He addded that the operational goal right now was to finish the encirclement of the city and then “start handling the Hamas infrastructure inside the city”.
“We are on key points [around Gaza city] – it is not a siege. There’ll be still options for people that want to move south so they can move south. We'll be doing slowly operations within the city, taking care of Hamas infrastructure. We’ve got [drone] coverage we’ve got these forces which are in the south, north and east.”
Agence-France Presse reported that their offices in Gaza City were hit on Thursday in a suspected Israeli drone strike, despite the fact that the Israeli military has the coordinates of their bureau.
Lt Col Hecht said the military was still assessing the bombing of the building and the preliminary assessment was it was not the Israeli military.
Israel is also enacting a blockade of Gaza – including fuel used for power – with aid agencies saying the small amount of aid that is getting through falls far short of requirements. On Friday, the WHO, UN Palestinian refugee agency, the UN Populations Fund and Unicef, put out a joint statement on the plight of women and newborns in Gaza. “With 14 hospitals and 45 primary healthcare centres closed, some women are having to give birth in shelters, in their homes, in the streets amid rubble, or in overwhelmed healthcare facilities, where sanitation is worsening, and the risk of infection and medical complications is on the rise.”
The statement added: “The lives of newborns also hang by a thread... If hospitals run out of fuel, the lives of an estimated 130 premature babies who rely on neonatal and intensive care services will be threatened.”