The New York Times 2024-07-10 12:10:27

Middle East Crisis: At Least 25 Reported Killed in Israeli Airstrike in Southern Gaza

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Israel says its strike hit near a school building, which local officials say was sheltering displaced people.

An Israeli airstrike near a school building being used as a shelter by displaced Palestinians killed at least 25 people and injured more than 50 on Tuesday outside of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, the Gaza Ministry of Health said. Many of the injured were in critical condition, and the death toll was expected to rise, it added.

The strike hit the entrance of Al Awda School in the town of Abassan, on the eastern outskirts of Khan Younis, according to the health ministry. The Israeli military said that the strike was targeting a Hamas member who took part in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, and that it was “looking into reports that civilians were harmed.”

The strike was condemned by Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top diplomat, who asked in a post on social media, “For how long are innocent civilians going to bear the brunt of this conflict? We condemn any violation of international law: those responsible must be held accountable.”

Tuesday’s strike was at least the fourth in four days in which the Israeli military bombed school buildings or struck in their immediate vicinity. In each instance, the military said the buildings were being used by Hamas or other militant groups.

At least 16 people were killed on Saturday in an Israeli strike on a school operated by UNRWA, the main United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees, in Nuseirat, in central Gaza, according to the health ministry. The following morning, Israeli forces bombed a Catholic school in Gaza City where hundreds of civilians were sheltering, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which runs the facility. And on Monday, the Israeli military said it had carried out a strike on militants “using the structures of a school in the area of Nuseirat as cover.”

According to the United Nations, more than 80 percent of Gaza’s schools have been severely damaged or destroyed by fighting, including all of the enclave’s 12 universities. Many of them had been converted into makeshift shelters for people displaced during the war.

Last month, an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza killed dozens of people at a U.N. school complex that thousands of displaced Palestinians were using as a shelter. Palestinian officials said the strike killed civilians, including many women and children.

Israel also struck schools that were being used as shelters in May, killing more than a dozen people, and last November, killing at least 24. In each case, Israel said it had been targeting Hamas fighters.

Images of the strike on Tuesday were posted online by Palestine TV, a network affiliated with the Palestinian Authority, a rival to Hamas based in the West Bank, and by Agence France-Presse, an international news agency.

The photos published by Agence France-Presse and Reuters showed the bodies of gravely injured young Palestinians sprawled on the floor of a hospital emergency room and piled onto the back of a pickup truck and a dirty cart pulled by a motorcycle.

In others, a woman and a child can be seen grieving next to body bags lying on the blood-streaked hospital floor. In another, a man cradles the bloody body of his dead child.

Palestine TV showed footage of panicked men and women ferrying the injured to an emergency room. Some rushed there in a battered ambulance, others in a sedan packed with children, its windows shattered and cracked. In one video, a man runs through the crowd to the hospital entrance shouting for mercy from God. In his arms is the body of a child, limp and flailing. The New York Times could not independently verify the videos.

In a statement, Hamas condemned the strike as “a continuation of the genocidal war and massacres by the Zionist terrorist government against our people.”

The group, which led the Oct. 7 attacks, in which hundreds of civilians in Israel were killed and abducted, said the strike on Tuesday showed Israel’s disregard for “the laws and treaties designed to protect civilians in war.”

Ephrat Livni contributed reporting.

key developments

A delegation of senior Israelis is expected in Qatar for cease-fire talks, and other news.

  • A delegation of senior Israeli officials — led by David Barnea, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency — will go to Qatar on Wednesday for further negotiations on a cease-fire and hostage release deal, according to an Israeli official and another official familiar with the matter. Mr. Barnea will be joined by Ronen Bar, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, the Israeli official said. The Israeli security chiefs are also expected to meet with William Burns, the C.I.A. director, and with the Qatari prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani, the officials said.

  • Mr. Burns met with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, on Tuesday to discuss the negotiations. Mediators have been scrambling to keep the talks alive as hopes for a cease-fire have diminished, with Israel and Hamas both indicating that they are still far apart. A White House spokesman, John F. Kirby, said on Monday: “We’re trying to close those gaps as best we can.” He played down Israel’s and Hamas’s public comments, saying they “aren’t necessarily reflective of the conversations we’re having privately with them or their interlocutors.”

  • Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, approved a plan on Tuesday to start drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the military over the next month after a Supreme Court ruling on June 25 found that there was no legal basis to give them an exemption. The Defense Ministry said that Mr. Gallant had approved orders for the screening and evaluation of ultra-Orthodox conscripts. The Supreme Court decision pit secular Israelis against the ultra-Orthodox, who say their religious study is as essential and protective as military service, and exposed cracks in the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which relies on two ultra-Orthodox parties.

  • An Israeli general on Monday issued a harsh rebuke of the government’s policies in the West Bank and condemned rising “nationalist crime” by Jewish settlers. Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuks, who is soon to retire as chief of Israel’s Central Command, which is responsible for the country’s military forces in the West Bank, said at a departure ceremony that a “strong and functioning” Palestinian Authority was in Israel’s security interest. And he said that an extremist minority of violent settlers had been undermining Israel’s reputation internationally and sowing fear among Palestinians. “That, to me, is not Judaism,” he said. “At least not what I was raised on in my father’s and mother’s home. That is not the way of the Torah.”

Gaza City quieted down months ago, but its residents are now under fire again.

When the Israeli military started scaling back its campaign in Gaza City early this year, the city’s residents thought the worst was over, and some soon moved back to its shattered blocks from other parts of Gaza.

Now, a new Israeli ground offensive is expanding into large areas of the city and people are fleeing once again, with even fewer options for refuge than before.

The Israeli military reported Tuesday that it was pressing on for a second day into neighborhoods in the center and west of the city, targeting areas where it says Hamas militants have re-established themselves in the months since it turned its focus to other parts of Gaza.

The pattern has repeated itself across the territory, as critics say Israel has done little to fill the power vacuum left behind when its troops move on. The latest raid was coupled with evacuation orders for several neighborhoods in the city and areas west of it, and crowds of people were scrambling to get out.

Zainab al-Khaldi, a lawyer and researcher with UNICEF who was working at a school-turned-shelter in Al-Daraj, one of the areas that the Israeli military moved into on Monday, described a frantic effort to figure out which way to go after the shelter where she was staying came under artillery fire with no warning on Monday evening.

“People went crazy and started running in all directions,” she said in a phone interview. Ms. al-Khaldi said she saw more than 20 people who were wounded by the shelling, “and no one could reach them to help.”

The military was already conducting a separate operation in the city, in the Shajaiye neighborhood in the east, which entered its 12th day on Tuesday. The Israeli military said it was “engaged in close-quarters combat” above and below ground with Palestinian militants. It said it had killed more than 150 militants in Shajaiye and “located tunnel shafts and significant tunnel routes.” The United Nations office of humanitarian affairs said 60,000 to 80,000 people were displaced on the first night of that raid.

About 20 minutes after the shelter in Al-Daraj was hit, Ms. al-Khaldi said she and others there started getting text messages and automated phone calls from the Israeli military instructing them to evacuate to the west. People started to do so, but many felt trapped as fighting raged in several areas nearby.

“If we wanted to go east to Shajaiye, there’s bombing,” she said. “If we wanted to go toward Al-Ahli Hospital there’s bombing,” describing a facility where people have been sheltering in central Gaza City.

“There was danger in all places,” she said.

Ms. al-Khaldi and a crowd of others headed west “under an insane amount of fire from quadcopters,” she said, before she was able to find shelter in the home of some she knows.

“This was not our first displacement and it will not be our last,” she said.

Humanitarian groups have condemned the new Israeli incursions and evacuation orders. The U.N. Human Rights Office said in a statement on Monday that it was “appalled” by the orders issued to Gaza City residents, “many of whom have been forcibly displaced multiple times.” It said the orders were confusing and often told people to move to combat areas.

The main U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said in a post on X that the displacements meant that “people have to move back to destroyed areas despite the threat of unexploded ordnance.”

Wafa, the Palestinian Authority’s official news agency, reported that dozens of Palestinians were killed and wounded in the neighborhoods of Al-Daraj, Al-Tuffah and the Old City amid intense Israeli bombardment. The agency added that Israeli attacks had also targeted Deir al Balah, an area in central Gaza where many of those fleeing had headed.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said in a statement that all of its smaller clinics and emergency rooms in Gaza City were “out of service” because they were located in the evacuation zones.

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting.

Hezbollah launches retaliatory rockets after Israel appears to strike in Syria.

An apparent Israeli drone strike in Syria on Tuesday prompted the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to respond with rocket fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the group said, an attack that killed two people as fears continued to mount over the threat of a full-scale war.

Hezbollah said in a statement that it had targeted an Israeli military base as a direct response to what it called an “assassination” in Syria earlier in the day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, reported on Tuesday that two Hezbollah members had been killed in an Israeli drone strike on their vehicle close to the Lebanese border. The driver of the vehicle, a Syrian national, was also injured in the strike, the war monitor said.

Neither Hezbollah nor the Israeli military said whether anyone had been killed in the strike, and Israel had not claimed responsibility by Tuesday night. But the Israeli military has ramped up airstrikes in Syria since the war began in Gaza last year — often targeting Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups who have entrenched themselves across the country.

The Israeli police said that a man and woman were killed in the Hezbollah rocket barrage that followed and that fire crews were working to extinguish several blazes that broke out in the area. It was not immediately clear if the victims were civilians or active-duty soldiers.

The Israeli military said a total of 40 projectiles had been launched across the Lebanese border into the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau bordering Syria that Israel annexed nearly 60 years ago.

The latest tit-for-tat strikes between Hezbollah and Israel came amid intensifying efforts by the Biden administration to contain the conflict and prevent an all-out war. Still, numerous rounds of shuttle diplomacy have failed to quell rising tensions, with Hezbollah stressing repeatedly that violence will continue along Israel’s northern border as long as the war in Gaza persists.

Hezbollah began firing into northern Israel in solidarity with the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 that precipitated the war in Gaza. More than 150,000 Israelis and Lebanese have so far been forced to flee their homes along the border, with no indication of when they may be able to return.

Organized looters are attacking aid convoys in search of contraband cigarettes, officials say.

A new problem is bedeviling humanitarian aid convoys attempting to deliver relief to hungry Gazans: attacks by organized crowds seeking not the flour and medicine that trucks are carrying, but cigarettes smuggled inside the shipments.

In tightly blockaded Gaza, cigarettes have become increasingly scarce, now generally selling for $25 to $30 apiece. U.N. and Israeli officials say the coordinated attacks by groups seeking to sell smuggled cigarettes for profit pose a formidable obstacle to bringing desperately needed aid to southern Gaza.

The Israeli authorities closely scan everything that goes in and out of Gaza through Israeli-administered checkpoints. But the cigarettes have managed to slip through for weeks inside aid trucks, mostly through Kerem Shalom crossing into southern Gaza.

To evade Israeli inspections, smugglers — mostly in Egypt — have been hiding them in sacks of United Nations-donated flour, diapers and even a watermelon, according to aid agencies and an Israeli military official who shared photos with The New York Times.

Aid trucks that set off from the crossing into Gaza were then attacked by crowds of Palestinians, some of them armed, seeking the cigarettes hidden inside, according to U.N. and Israeli officials.

Andrea De Domenico, who runs the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, confirmed that aid officials had “seen cartons of U.N.-branded assistance with cigarettes inside.” He said the contraband cigarettes had created “a new dynamic” of organized attacks on aid convoys.

Israel’s near-total control of the goods that enter Gaza amid the war has warped the enclave’s economy. The price of flour has plunged in parts of Gaza because Israel, under intense international pressure to ease hunger, has allowed aid agencies to pump in large amounts of it. Other commodities, which have entered less frequently, remain rarer and more expensive.

Mr. De Domenico showed The Times footage he had taken during a recent drive along the road leading into Gaza from Kerem Shalom: Full flour bags can be seen strewed along the side of the road, seemingly of little interest to the looters.

“Their main purpose here was to search for the cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaibar, who runs a Palestinian trucking company at Kerem Shalom that ferries U.N. aid.

Officials said that most of the trucks bearing cigarettes appeared to come from Egypt, which rerouted trucks arriving from Egyptian territory through Kerem Shalom after Israel captured the Rafah border crossing in early May. Mr. Shaibar attributed the smuggling operation to Bedouin families with a footprint in both Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai.

The looting is a product of the anarchy that has gripped much of Gaza as Israel’s war against Hamas enters its 10th month. Israeli forces have targeted Hamas’s governing apparatus and police without installing any new administration in their place, creating widespread lawlessness.

Even as deprivation in southern Gaza has deepened amid a new wave of Israeli military evacuation orders, the contents of over 1,000 aid trucks have been stuck for weeks at the Gazan side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, according to the Israeli authorities. Fearing attack, aid agencies have hesitated to send trucks to collect and distribute the goods.

Israel says it has made efforts to ensure U.N. agencies can collect the goods, including by paving new roads, and points out that private merchants have been able to bear the difficult conditions to pick up their wares. Aid officials say Israel could do much more, including allowing them to expand their use of other roads and crossings.

Convoys ferrying U.N. aid are often an easier target than private businessmen, who are willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in protection money to guards or to the organized gangs themselves.

U.N. and Israeli officials said the smugglers outside Gaza were closely coordinated with organized groups inside the territory that have blocked aid trucks with light arms, clubs and improvised roadblocks. After successfully halting convoys, the looters often appeared to know precisely where to find the cigarettes hidden inside, Mr. De Domenico said.

“These attacks have been very targeted,” he said. “They go exactly into the pallet” where the cigarettes are.

Col. Elad Goren, a senior official in COGAT, the Israeli agency that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, said the smuggling appeared to originate in Egypt; other people familiar with the trade shared his assessment.

“Most of the packages we’ve been able to get our hands on,” Colonel Goren said. “But we believe that things need to be done on the Egyptian side in order to stop the smuggling.”

The Egyptian government’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One cigarette seller in Gaza City said prices could range up to $40 per cigarette for more sought-after brands. Desperate smokers were willing to pay the high prices, despite being impoverished after several months of war, he said.

The seller, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution, said Hamas forces were still present in the area but not as police to apply the law, just as “mafias.”

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