© Reuters. Palestinians pull an ambulance after a convoy of ambulances was hit, at the entrance of Shifa hospital in Gaza City, November 3, 2023. REUTERS/Anas al-Shareef
By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Simon Lewis and Suleiman Al-Khalidi
GAZA/AMMAN (Reuters) -Gaza health officials said 15 people were killed in an Israeli air strike on an ambulance that the military said targeted Hamas militants, and Washington’s top diplomat was due to hear Arab demands for a ceasefire in a meeting on Saturday in Jordan.
The ambulance hit by the Israeli strike was part of a convoy carrying injured Palestinians at Gaza’s biggest hospital, al-Shifa, health officials in the Hamas-run enclave said on Friday.
“Upon their arrival to al-Shifa, (Israel) directly targeted the convoy’s second vehicle, committing a terrible massacre that claimed the lives of 15 and wounded more than 60,” health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said.
Israel’s military said it had identified and hit an ambulance “being used by an Hamas terrorist cell” and that a number of Hamas fighters were killed.
“We emphasise that this area is a battle zone. Civilians in the area are repeatedly called upon to evacuate southwards for their own safety,” the military said.
The Hamas-controlled Palestinian health ministry challenged Israel over the bombing of the ambulance and demanded it provide proof that the ambulance was carrying militants.
“The occupation conducted an ugly massacre in which… 15 people were martyred and 60 other people were wounded including a number of the displaced,” al-Qidra said.
The Israeli military gave no evidence to support its assertion that the ambulance was linked to Hamas but said it intended to release additional information.
Reuters could not independently verify accounts from either side.
Israel has accused Hamas of concealing command centres and tunnel entrances in al-Shifa, something Hamas and the hospital denies.
Israel’s ground forces encircled Gaza City on Thursday after stepping up a bombing campaign it says aims at wiping out Hamas, after the militant group killed 1,400 people and took more than 240 hostage in an Oct. 7 assault in southern Israel.
Israel last month ordered all civilians to leave the northern part of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City, and head to the south of the enclave, which it has also continued to bomb.
Gaza’s living conditions, already dire before the fighting, have deteriorated further. Food is scarce, residents have resorted to drinking salty water, medical services are collapsing and Gaza health officials say more than 9,250 Palestinians have been killed.
On Friday morning an Israeli air strike killed three people, including two women, in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, according to Gaza health officials.
The U.N. humanitarian office OCHA estimates that nearly 1.5 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are internally displaced.
‘CONTINUING FULL FORCE’
Hamas has prepared for a protracted war in Gaza and believes it can hold up Israel’s advance long enough to force its arch enemy to agree to a ceasefire, two sources close to the organization’s leadership said.
The group believes international pressure for Israel to end the siege could force a ceasefire and negotiated settlement in which the militant group would get a tangible concession, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli hostages, the sources said.
On a visit to the region, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday and called for a humanitarian pause in fighting that he said would facilitate work to release hostages, allow aid into Gaza but not prevent Israel from defending itself.
In a televised address, Netanyahu rejected the idea of a pause unless hostages were freed.
“I made clear that we are continuing full force and that Israel refuses a temporary ceasefire which does not include the release of our hostages,” Netanyahu said.
A senior Biden administration official said on Friday the U.S. had “indirect engagement” aimed at freeing the hostages.
Explaining why it was taking “so long” to get foreign nationals out, the official said Hamas initially conditioned the release of foreigners on wounded Palestinians being able to exit as well, but one-third of the Palestinians on the list turned out to be Hamas members.
On Saturday Blinken is to meet the Saudi, Qatari, Emirati and Egyptian foreign ministers, as well as Palestinian representatives in Amman, the Jordanian foreign ministry said.
The Arab leaders will stress the “Arab stance calling for an immediate ceasefire, delivering humanitarian aid and ways of ending the dangerous deterioration that threatens the security of the region”, the ministry said in a statement.
Washington has maintained robust military and political support for Israel, while calling on its ally to take steps to avoid civilian deaths and address Gaza’s humanitarian crisis.
SECOND OR THIRD FRONT
While Blinken was in Israel, the leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group warned the United States that if Israel did not stop its assault on Gaza, the conflict could widen into a regional war.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in his first speech since the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted, also threatened the U.S., hinting his paramilitary group was ready to confront American warships in the Mediterranean.
A heavily armed ally of Hamas, Hezbollah has been engaging Israeli forces on the Lebanon-Israel border in the biggest flare-up since it fought a war with Israel in 2006.
“You, the Americans, can stop the aggression against Gaza because it is your aggression,” Nasrallah said. “Whoever wants to prevent a regional war, and I am talking to the Americans, must quickly halt the aggression on Gaza.”
He added that Hezbollah, the spearhead of a Tehran-backed regional alliance hostile to Israel and the United States, did not fear the U.S. naval firepower Washington has assembled in the region since the crisis erupted.
Other Iran-aligned groups have entered the fray since Oct. 7, with Iran-backed Shi’ite groups firing on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, and Yemen’s Houthis launching drones at Israel.