Israel intensifies Gaza strikes, blocks diplomatic efforts for civilian aid, safe passage
PHOTO CAPTION: Smoke rises in the air following Israeli bombings in Gaza, as seen from Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel October 15, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli forces kept up their bombardment of Gaza on Monday after diplomatic efforts to arrange a ceasefire to allow foreign citizens to leave and aid to be brought into the besieged Palestinian enclave failed.
Residents of Hamas-ruled Gaza said overnight air strikes were the heaviest yet as the conflict entered its 10th day with an Israeli ground offensive of the densely populated coastal strip believed to be imminent.
Bombing carried on through the day, they said, and many buildings were flattened, trapping yet more people under the rubble. Israeli officials issued multiple warnings of Hamas rocket fire into Israel.
Diplomatic efforts have been underway to get aid into the enclave, which has endured unrelenting Israeli bombing since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants that killed 1,300 people - the bloodiest single day in the state's 75-year history.
But Israel's chief military spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said there was no Gaza ceasefire plan.
"We are continuing our fight against Hamas, this murderous organisation that carried this (the assaults) out."
Israel has imposed a full blockade and is preparing a ground invasion to enter Gaza and destroy Hamas, which has continued to fire rockets at Israel since its cross-border assault. On Monday, warning sirens sounded in several towns in southern Israel, the Israeli military said.
Israeli troops and tanks are already massed on the border.
Authorities in Gaza said at least 2,750 people had so far been killed by the Israeli strikes, a quarter of them children, and nearly 10,000 wounded. A further 1,000 people were missing and believed to be under rubble.
With food, fuel and water running short, hundreds of tons of aid from several countries have been held up in Egypt pending a deal for its safe delivery to Gaza and the evacuation of some foreign passport holders through the Rafah border crossing.
Earlier on Monday, Egyptian security sources had said an agreement had been reached to open the crossing to allow aid into the enclave.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said: "There is currently no truce and humanitarian aid in Gaza in exchange for getting foreigners out."
Hamas official Izzat El Reshiq told Reuters there was "no truth" to the reports about the crossing opening or a temporary ceasefire.
Egypt has said the crossing was rendered inoperable due to Israeli bombardments on the Palestinian side.
U.S. officials were hoping the Rafah crossing could be opened for a few hours later on Monday to allow some people to leave Gaza before the expected Israeli ground offensive, White House spokesman John Kirby told CNN.
The United States had told its citizens in Gaza to go to the crossing. It estimates the number of dual-citizen Palestinian-Americans in Gaza at 500 to 600.
Many Palestinians and foreign citizens flocked towards the crossing on Monday with suitcases and belongings hoping to make it across the Egyptian border.
"There is no safety, even when you're at the crossing you're afraid," Hadeel Abu Dahoud told Reuters. "Nowhere is safe in Gaza. Wherever we go there's shelling, shelling, crying, screaming, blood."
Washington is also seeking to secure the release of 199 hostages that Israel says were taken by Hamas back into Gaza. Among them are elderly people, women and children and foreigners, including Americans.
U.S. President Joe Biden postponed a trip to Colorado on Monday to stay at the White House for national security meetings as Washington works to contain the conflict, the White House said.
Biden has sent military aid to Israel but also stressed the need to get humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians and urged Israel to follow the rules of war in its response to the Hamas attacks.
In Gaza's north, where Israel says Hamas militants are hiding in a tunnel network, people said Israeli aircraft bombed areas around the Al-Quds hospital early on Monday. Houses were damaged, forcing hundreds of people to take shelter in the Red Crescent-run hospital.
Israeli planes also bombed three offices of the Civil Emergency and Ambulance Service in Gaza City, killing five people and paralyzing the rescue services, health officials said.
Israel has told Gazans to evacuate south, which hundreds of thousands have already done in the enclave, home to about 2.3 million people. Hamas has told people to ignore Israel's message.
In southern Gaza, five members a family were killed in Khan Younis refugee camp.
With hundreds of people trapped in collapsed buildings, rescuers and residents were frantically tearing away rubble, sometimes pulling out barely-breathing children.
"We were inside the house when we found bodies scattering, flying in the air - bodies of children who have nothing to do with the war," said resident Abed Rabayaa, whose neighbour's house in Khanis Younis was hit overnight.
Reserves of fuel to power generators at all hospitals across the Gaza Strip are expected to last only around 24 more hours, putting thousands of patients at risk, the United Nations humanitarian office (OCHA) said early on Monday.
More than one million people – almost half the population of Gaza - have been displaced within the enclave, the United Nations said, and it is struggling to cope with their needs.
For the fifth consecutive day, Gaza has had no electricity, pushing vital services, including health, water and sanitation to the brink of collapse. People are consuming brackish water from agricultural wells, raising concerns over the spread of disease.
U.S. officials have warned that the war between Israel and Hamas could escalate after cross-border clashes between Israel and militants from Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel for talks on Monday, Iran said the United States should be held to account for its role in the conflict.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Bassam Massoud and Nuha Sharaf in Gaza, Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Henriette Chacar, Dedi Hayun, Maayan Lubell, Emily Rose, James Mackenzie and John Davison in Jerusalem, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Humeyra Pamuk, Hatem Maher, Ahmed Tolba and Omar Abdel-Razek in Cairo, Nandita Bose, Rami Ayyub and Katharine Jackson in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Angus MacSwan, Editing by Miral Fahmy and Philippa Fletcher)