By Nidal al-Mughrabi
DOHA, Feb 9 (Reuters) – Israeli forces carried out deadly air strikes on Gaza on Friday, hours after U.S. President Joe Biden described the military response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by the Palestinian territory’s ruling Hamas movement as “over the top”.
Israel pressed on with its bombing campaign as diplomats sought to salvage ceasefire talks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a Hamas proposal that also envisaged the release of hostages held by the Palestinian militant group.
The United States hopes to secure a pause in fighting before Israel carries out a threatened ground assault on the southern city of Rafah, where over half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering near the border with Egypt.
Palestinian health officials said at least 15 people were killed in the latest air strikes, including eight in Rafah, the last refuge for many Gazans displaced as Israeli’s offensive advanced southwards through the narrow coastal enclave.
Salem El-Rayyes, a Palestinian freelance journalist living at a camp for displaced people, said children were among those killed when an Israeli missile slammed into a house in an area nearby.
“They were asleep in the early hours of Friday around dawn,” he wrote on Facebook. “The explosion rocked the ground under our feet and the sound still echoes in our ears.”
He said the bodies of victims “flew from the third floor before they fell on the ground outside the building on the cars inside the narrow alley and in the vicinity of nearby houses”.
Israel did not immediately comment on the latest air strikes. It says it takes steps to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas militants of hiding among civilians, including at school shelters and hospitals. Hamas has denied doing so.
Washington warned on Thursday that any Israeli military operation launched in Rafah without due consideration for the plight of civilians would be a disaster, and said it would not support it.
Though the U.S. is Israel’s most important ally, it has urged Israel to scale down its all-out war into a more targeted campaign against Hamas leaders.
In some of his sharpest public criticism to date of Netanyahu’s government, Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday: “I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.”
Biden said he has been pushing for a deal to normalise Saudi Arabia-Israel relations, increase the amount of humanitarian aid reaching Palestinian civilians, and pause fighting for a time to allow the release of hostages taken by Hamas.
“I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage ceasefire,” Biden said. “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s gotta stop.”
CEASEFIRE PROPOSED BY HAMAS
Gaza’s health ministry said on Friday that at least 27,947 Palestinians had been confirmed killed in the conflict, 107 of them in the previous 24 hours, and 67,459 injured.
It says many more could still be buried under the rubble from the Israeli offensive – launched after Hamas militants killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies.
Hamas this week proposed a ceasefire of 4-1/2 months, during which all remaining hostages would go free, Israel would withdraw its troops and an agreement would be reached on an end to the war.
Netanyahu said on Wednesday the terms offered by Hamas were “delusional” and vowed to fight on, saying victory was in reach and just months away.
Hamas says it will not agree to any deal that does not include an end to the war and Israeli withdrawal. Israel says it will not withdraw or stop fighting until Hamas is eradicated.
In a sign that diplomatic efforts are continuing, a Hamas delegation led by senior official Khalil Al-Hayya arrived in Cairo on Thursday for talks with mediators Egypt and Qatar.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited the Middle East on a lightning trip this week to try to secure a breakthrough and prevent the conflict spreading further in the region.
In addition to the eight people killed in Rafah on Friday, Palestinians health officials said four were killed in an air strike on a house in the town of Al-Zawaydeh in central Gaza and one in nearby Deir Al-Balah.
Residents reported fierce gun battles in Gaza City in the north, and witnesses said eastern parts of Khan Younis in the south had been shelled. Medics and Hamas media said an Israeli drone strike had killed two people in Khan Younis.
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, stressed the growing toll the war is taking on children in Gaza.
“Children are being robbed of childhood. This needs to be reversed starting with a humanitarian #ceasefire,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Israel accused 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff last month of taking part in the Oct. 7 attack. Nine have since been fired. Of the remaining three staff, one is dead, and the U.N. is clarifying the identity of the other two.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday the world body would act immediately on any new information from Israel related to “any other infiltration”.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Doha, Steve Holland in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Kevin Liffey)