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Israeli forces are preparing for a major push into Gaza City, the base of Hamas’s political and military machinery in the north of the Palestinian territory, as US president Joe Biden called for a “pause” in hostilities to help free hostages held in the blockaded enclave.
“We are at the gates of Gaza City,” said Brigadier General Itzik Cohen of the Israel Defense Forces.
Defence minister Yoav Gallant said the Israeli military had struck the city at least 10,000 times since the war against Hamas was declared on October 7.
Israeli armoured vehicles and troops have massed inside the northern edge of the Gaza Strip since the weekend, and tanks have been spotted south of Gaza City, moving towards the Mediterranean, suggesting the IDF planned to encircle the city.
The IDF overnight struck the crowded Jabalia refugee camp again, saying it had targeted a high-ranking Hamas commander there. Palestinian health authorities said strikes on the camp in northern Gaza over two days had killed almost 200 people. Video from the strike showed several flattened buildings and heavy fighting was reported along the edges of Gaza City, which before the war was home to more than 500,000 people.
Israel’s bombardment has killed at least 8,800 people in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials. Hamas’s attack on Israel killed 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials, with more than 240 hostages taken back to Gaza. Israeli officials said 16 Israeli soldiers had been killed since its forces began their ground offensive into Gaza.
Biden’s call for a pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas in order to help free hostages held in Gaza was in response to a question from an audience member at an event in Minnesota on Wednesday. “I think we need a pause,” the US president said. “A pause means give time to get the prisoners out.”
Biden’s comments did not represent a call for a full ceasefire, which the White House has resisted. But US officials have said in recent days that they would consider supporting a temporary halt in hostilities if it were limited to helping humanitarian efforts.
About 300 aid trucks have been allowed into Gaza since the beginning of the war, compared with more than 400 a day before the war began. Biden has repeatedly asked the Israelis to facilitate more aid, saying on Wednesday that the relief efforts “had a long way to go”.
The Israeli government has said the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains manageable, though the UN and others report widespread shortages of food, clean water and medicine.
“The levels of distress and the unsanitary living conditions were beyond comprehension,” said Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the main relief agency for Palestinian refugees, after visiting Gaza on Wednesday. “Everyone was just asking for water and food.”
Biden said he understood the “emotion” the conflict was eliciting on all sides. “This is incredibly complicated for the Israelis. It’s incredibly complicated for the Muslim world as well,” he said. “I supported a two-state solution; I have from the very beginning.”
More foreign nationals and some wounded Palestinians are expected to be allowed out of the Rafah crossing on Gaza’s border with Egypt, western diplomats said. Just under 400 were allowed out on Wednesday, while 61 aid trucks were permitted to enter. Hamas’s proposed exit list on Thursday had the names of 1,000 foreign nationals on it, including about 400 US nationals.
Biden’s remarks follow mounting international concern about high civilian casualties and the deterioration of living conditions resulting from Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza as it tries to quash Hamas.
The president’s willingness to consider backing a pause in the conflict comes as US secretary of state Antony Blinken plans a visit to the Middle East, starting with Israel, for a new round of diplomatic talks on the conflict this week.
In protest against the civilian death toll, Jordan, Colombia and Chile have recalled their ambassadors to Israel, while Bolivia has severed diplomatic relations with Israel altogether.