First evacuees leave Gaza as Israeli offensive intensifies
GAZA/JERUSALEM – A first group of injured evacuees from Gaza crossed into Egypt on Wednesday under a Qatari-mediated deal, Egyptian media and a source at the border said, as Israeli forces pressed their battle against Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave.
The evacuees were driven in ambulances through the Rafah border crossing. Under the deal reached between Egypt, Israel and Hamas, a number of foreigners and critically wounded people will be allowed to leave the besieged territory.
The evacuation followed another day of bloodshed in Gaza in which an Israeli air strike on Tuesday killed about 50 people in a refugee camp, according to Palestinian health officials.
Israel said the attack killed a senior Hamas commander and many other combatants.
Israel sent its forces into Hamas-controlled Gaza following weeks of air and artillery bombardments in retaliation for a deadly attack by the Islamist group on southern Israel on Oct 7.
Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas. But the civilian death toll in Gaza and the desperate humanitarian conditions have caused great concern across the world as food, fuel, drinking water and medicine run short and hospitals struggle to treat casualties.
An Egyptian security source had said earlier that up to 500 foreign passport holders will pass the Rafah border crossing on Wednesday. About 200 people were waiting at the Palestinian side of the border on Wednesday morning, the source said.
A second source said not all were expected to make it out on Wednesday. There was no timeline for how long the crossing will remain open for evacuation, they added.
A Western official said a list of people with foreign passports who can leave Gaza had been agreed between Israel and Egypt and relevant embassies have been informed. An Israeli official who requested anonymity confirmed that Israel was coordinating the exits with Egypt.
Egypt has prepared a field hospital in Sheikh Zuwayed in the Sinai, medical sources said. Ambulances could be seen waiting at the Rafah crossing.
The first source said this deal, however, was not linked to other issues, such as the release of about 240 hostages held by Hamas or a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting which many countries have called for but which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected.
The Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 killed about 300 soldiers and some 1,100 civilians, Israeli figures say.
At least 8,525 Palestinians, including 3,542 children, were killed in retaliatory Israeli strikes on Gaza since Oct.7, the Gaza health ministry says.
REFUGEE CAMP HIT
The Israeli military said Tuesday’s strikes on Jabalia, Gaza’s largest refugee camp, had killed Ibrahim Biari, a Hamas commander it said was pivotal in organising the Oct. 7 assault, as well as dozens of Hamas militants.
Palestinian health officials said at least 50 Palestinians were killed and 150 wounded, while a Hamas statement said there were 400 dead and injured in Jabalia, which houses families of refugees from wars with Israel dating back to 1948.
Hamas’ armed wing al-Qassam Brigades said seven civilian hostages were killed in the Jabalia attack, including three foreign passport holders. There was no comment from Israel on the claim.
Eleven Israeli soldiers were also killed in fighting on Tuesday, the Israeli military said, its biggest one-day loss since the initial assault.
Netanyahu mourned mounting military losses but said the war would be long but victorious.
“We are in a tough war. It will be a long war,” he said in a statement. “I promise to all citizens of Israel: We will get the job done. We will press ahead until victory.”
After a lull of several hours in rocket fire, the Israeli military sounded sirens in southern communities as well as the port cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.
The din of Israeli war planes, tanks and naval boats pounding Gaza city and the north continued all through the night. Israeli ground forces clashed with fighters from Hamas and other groups in the north, southern and eastern areas of Gaza – part of a series of incursions apparently aimed at incremental gains rather than a full-scale invasion.
Communications and internet services were completely cut off in Gaza again on Wednesday, telecommunications provider Paltel said.
“They don’t want the world to see their crimes against civilians,” said Gaza resident Ahmed Muhey.
Dozens of Palestinians gathered outside the Nasser Hospital morgue waiting to get the bodies of their relatives for burial.
Inside, bodies lay on the ground being prepared to be shrouded in white after they were cleaned of dust and blood.
Health officials said they had received 15 bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes overnight in Khan Younis, including four children.
“Everyday there are dead and every day there are children or women among them or both,” said one doctor.
Two of Gaza’s main hospitals – Al Shifa Medical and the Indonesian Hospital – faced a power outage as their generators rapidly run out of fuel.
The current violence – the worst in many years of sporadic warfare – erupted at a time when Palestinian hopes for an independent state and an end to Israel’s occupation are as far away as ever. Peace talks are now just a distant memory and Netanyahu’s right-wing government has expanded Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Israel sees Hamas, which has vowed to destroy the Jewish state, as an existential threat.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will visit Israel on Friday, said the United States and other countries were looking at “a variety of possible permutations” for the future of Gaza if Hamas militants are removed from control.
Iran supports Hamas, as well as several other militant groups in the region, and the conflict in Gaza has triggered fears of a wider escalation.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military said it had deployed missile boats in the Red Sea, following long-range drone and missile attacks claimed by the Houthis in Yemen.