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Israel dismisses U.S. call to prioritize civilians in Gaza, escalating siege in north

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he disembarks from an aircraft on his arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday.
Jonathan Ernst
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AP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he disembarks from an aircraft on his arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday.

Updated November 3, 2023 at 8:14 PM ET

Israel has stepped up attacks in northern Gaza amid an ongoing war against Hamas as it spurned U.S. calls for a "humanitarian pause" in the Palestinian territory.

The Israeli military tightened its siege on Gaza City, as part of its expanded ground operation and continued airstrikes in the region.

In the north on Friday afternoon, an Israeli airstrike hit near the front of Al Shifa hospital, the largest hospital in Gaza City, as a convoy of ambulances was transporting seriously injured people to Gaza's southern border for treatment in Egypt, according to the head of the hospital.

Israel acknowledged the bombing, but said the target was Hamas militants. The IDF said in a statement that it carried out an airstrike on an ambulance "being used by a Hamas terrorist cell," and that members of Hamas were killed in the strike, but did not give a number. The Israeli military said it has intelligence that Hamas has been using ambulances to transfer operatives and weapons.

Dr. Mohammad Abu Salmiya, the director of Al Shifa hospital, said that 13 people were killed and dozens injured in the Israeli strike.

Footage of the aftermath showed more than a dozen bloodied bodies of men, women and children lying next to damaged cars and ambulances, the Associated Press reported.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that it had received a request from Gaza's health ministry to accompany the southern-bound convoy evacuating the wounded but did not comment further about the strike near Al Shifa.

The humanitarian situation at the hospitals in northern Gaza is "catastrophic and is getting worse," the ICRC added.

Blinken calls for 'humanitarian pause' in latest visit

Earlier in the day, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel for another visit to urge the country to prioritizethe protection of civilians in Gaza.

On Blinken's third visit to the region and fourth to Israel since the outbreak of the war on Oct. 7, he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's war cabinet in Tel Aviv.

The U.S. has called for a temporary "humanitarian pause" to enable more aid to enter Gaza and for hostages to be released, though Blinken and other U.S. officials have fallen short of a demand for a full cease-fire.

"We provided Israel advice that only the best of friends can offer on how to minimize civilian deaths while still achieving its objectives of finding and finishing Hamas terrorists and their infrastructure of violence," Blinken said.

In his own remarks, Netanyahu rejected calls for a pause, saying Israel's military forces will continue its operations in Gaza until Hamas is defeated and the kidnapped hostages are returned. Israel's military says Hamas is currently holding 241 hostages.

Speaking alongside Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Friday in Tel Aviv and again in a subsequent news conference, Blinken reiterated U.S. solidarity with Israel.

"We stand strongly for the proposition that Israel has not only the right but the obligation to defend itself and to do everything possible to make sure that this Oct. 7 can never happen again," Blinken said Friday.

But how Israel defends itself matters, he said.

"We've been clear that as Israel conducts its campaign to defeat Hamas, how it does so matters. It matters because it's the right and lawful thing to do. It matters because failure to do so plays into the hands of Hamas and other terror groups," Blinken said.

Blinken was set to make other visits elsewhere in the Middle East as the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened an escalation of skirmishes with Israel along the border between the two countries.

Hezbollah leader threatens militant group's involvement

As Blinken addressed the media, Nasrallah spoke for the first time since the war between Israel and Hamas began nearly a month ago. The leader of the Iran-backed group stopped short of announcing an all-out war with Israel, but threatened that the group's actions will depend on developments in Gaza.

In his closely watched televised speech, Nasrallah denied that Hezbollah had anything to do with the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed about 1,400 people — or having any knowledge of it beforehand. He celebrated it, however.

Nasrallah said in escalating attacks along Lebanon's border with Israel, Hezbollah is intending to draw Israeli firepower away from Gaza. He claimed the operations, which have included shelling attacks, incursions and most recently suicide drones, are tying up significant parts of Israel's military and causing psychological warfare in forcing the displacement of residents in the north of the country.

He said the future of this front with Israel hinges in large part on the development of events in Gaza. He called foreign nations, and on the U.S. in particular, to pressure Israel to end the war in Gaza. He warned: "If you want to avoid a regional war, you must end the aggression on Gaza."

Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group raise their fists and cheer as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday appears via a video link, during a rally to commemorate Hezbollah fighters who were killed in South Lebanon while fighting against the Israeli forces, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Hussein Malla / AP
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AP
Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group raise their fists and cheer as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday appears via a video link, during a rally to commemorate Hezbollah fighters who were killed in South Lebanon while fighting against the Israeli forces, in Beirut, Lebanon.

He said Hezbollah would not be deterred from further military action by threats or by the presence of U.S. warships in the Mediterranean.

"All scenarios are open on our Lebanese southern front. All options are laid out and we can adopt any at any point in time," he said.

Netanyahu had his own threats for Hezbollah, saying an attack from Lebanon "will come at a price."

In a televised press briefing on Friday, IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said forces carried out a strike on Hezbollah anti-tank firing positions and a Hezbollah military post in response to the firing of an anti-tank missile earlier in the day from the Lebanese side.

"We will act with determination on the northern border against any threat to the State of Israel," Hagari said.

Casualties mount, as humanitarian situation worsens

Israel says that Hamas intentionally operates near sensitive sites. Palestinians say the Israeli air campaign is reckless and has killed thousands of civilians.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said between Wednesday 12 p.m. and Thursday 2 p.m., there were 256 Palestinians killed in Gaza.

The Palestinian health officials said 9,155 people have died in Gaza since the start of the war. Two-thirds of those victims are children and women, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

This picture taken on Friday from a position along the border between the Gaza Strip and southern Israel shows a smoke plume erupting during Israeli bombardment.
Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
This picture taken on Friday from a position along the border between the Gaza Strip and southern Israel shows a smoke plume erupting during Israeli bombardment.

Israel reports a death toll of about 1,400 since Oct. 7. On Thursday, two Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza, "bringing the total number of soldiers killed since the start of ground operations to 17," the U.N. said.

On Thursday, 102 trucks carrying humanitarian aid entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing, bringing the total number of trucks that have entered to 374, the U.N. said. They have brought in much-needed medical and food assistance, but Israel continues to block the delivery of fuel, a major problem for Gaza's hospitals.

Despite mounting international criticism on Israel's response to the Oct. 7 attacks, Herzog sought to defend the country, claiming Israel has followed international law in its reaction.

Herzog said Gaza citizens are receiving millions of leaflets, text messages and phone calls to alert them in advance of airstrikes and to warn them to leave the area he claimed in accordance with international law.

As Herzog and Blinken made their remarks, the families of hostages demonstrating outside could be heard demanding the return of their loved ones, of which there are many Israelis and Americans.

"We are hearing from the outside the demonstration of the families, our heart goes out to them, we understand it, we want her immediate release," Herzog said.

Jaclyn Diaz and Greg Myre are reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel. Ruth Sherlock is reporting from Rome. Emma Bowman is in Los Angeles. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.