DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israel’s prime minister on Saturday pushed back against growing calls from Western allies to do more to protect Palestinian civilians as troops closed in on Gaza’s main hospital, which Israel claims is Hamas’ main command post , but still hosts thousands of patients and people seeking shelter.
Benjamin Netanyahu said responsibility for any harm to civilians lies with Hamas, repeating long-standing allegations that the militant group uses civilians in Gaza as human shields. He said that while Israel has urged civilians to leave combat zones, “Hamas is doing everything it can to prevent them from leaving.”
His statement came after French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for a ceasefire and urged other leaders to join his call, telling the BBC there was “no justification” for Israel’s ongoing bombing.
After Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack on Israel, where at least 1,200 people were killed, Israel’s allies have defended the country’s right to protect itself. But now into the second month of the war, there are growing differences in how many feel Israel should wage its fight.
The US has pushed for temporary pauses that would allow for the wider distribution of much-needed aid to civilians in the besieged area, where conditions are more and more terrible. However, Israel has so far only agreed to short daily periods where civilians are able to flee the ground fighting area in northern Gaza and head south on foot along the territory’s main north-south artery.
Since those evacuation windows were first announced a week ago, more than 150,000 civilians have fled north, according to UN monitors. Tens of thousands more remain in northern Gaza, many sheltering in hospitals and overcrowded UN facilities.
Palestinian civilians and rights activists have pushed back against Israel’s portrayal of the southern evacuation zones as “relatively safe,” noting that Israeli bombardment has continued over Gaza, including airstrikes in the south that Israel says target Hamas leaders, but who have also killed women and children.
The US and Israel also have divergent views on what a post-war Gaza should look like. Netanyahu and military leaders have said this should be dictated solely by Israel’s security needs, such as ensuring no threats emerge from the territory. Israel has said a key goal of the war is to crush Hamas, a militant group that has ruled Gaza for 16 years.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters Friday during a tour of Asia laid out what he said were basic principles for a post-war Gaza, some of which seemed at odds with Israel’s narrow approach.
Blinken said those principles include “no forcible expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, no use of Gaza as a platform for launching terrorism or other attacks against Israel, no diminution in the territory of Gaza, and a commitment to Palestinian-led governance for Gaza and for the West Bank and in a unified way.”
FIGHT AROUND HOSPITALS
Concern has grown in recent days as fighting through the dense neighborhoods of Gaza City has moved closer to hospitals that Israel claims are being used by Hamas fighters.
On Saturday, Palestinians said Israeli troops were within sight of Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest. Israel has said that Hamas’ main command center is located under the hospital, claims Hamas and Shifa staff deny.
Thousands of civilians had been sheltering in the Shifa compound in recent weeks, but many fled on Friday after several nearby attacks in which one person was killed and several were injured.
Abdallah Nasser, who lives near Shifa, said by telephone that the Israeli military was advancing deep into the city from its southern and northern flanks.
“They are facing stiff resistance, but they are making progress,” he said.
Mohammed al-Masri, one of thousands still sheltering in the hospital, said that from a higher floor he could see Israeli troops approaching from the west. “They’re here,” he said. “They are visible.”
Thousands have fled Shifa and other hospitals that have been attacked, but doctors said it is impossible for everyone to get out.
“We cannot evacuate ourselves and (let) these people in,” an MSF surgeon at Shifa, Mohammed Obeid, was quoted as saying by the organization.
“As a doctor, I swear to help the people who need help.”
The organization said other doctors reported that some staff had fled to save themselves and their families, and urged all hospitals to be protected.
THE ROOFS ARE RISING
More than 11,070 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the health ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza, which does not distinguish between civilian and militant deaths. Around 2,700 people have been reported missing and are believed to be possibly trapped or dead under the rubble.
The Hamas-run Interior Ministry said six people were killed early Saturday in a strike on the Nuseirat refugee camp that hit a house. The camp is located in the southern evacuation zone.
At least 1,200 people have been killed in Israel, mostly in the initial Hamas attack, and 41 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the ground offensive began, Israeli officials said. The State Department had previously estimated the number of civilian deaths at 1,400 and on Friday gave no reason for the revision.
An Israeli official told The Associated Press that the number had been changed after a painstaking week-long process to identify bodies, many of which were mutilated or burned during the Hamas crackdown. The final death toll could still change, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.
Nearly 240 people abducted by Hamas from Israel remain trapped.
About 250,000 Israelis have been forced to evacuate from communities near Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon, where Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants have traded fire repeatedly.
Magdy reported from Cairo, Rising from Bangkok.
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.