KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel said Wednesday it will allow Egypt to deliver limited amounts of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, the first step in a 10-day siege on the territory. Palestinians were shaken by a massive explosion at a hospital in Gaza City that killed hundreds of people the day before and became increasingly desperate as food and water supplies dried up.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the decision was approved following a request from visiting US President Joe Biden. He said Israel “will not thwart” deliveries of food, water or medicine, as long as they are limited to civilians in the southern Gaza Strip and not intended for Hamas militants. The statement made no mention of the badly needed fuel.
It was unclear when aid would start flowing. At the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only connection to Egypt, aid trucks have been waiting for days to enter. But the facility has only limited capacity and Egypt says it was damaged by Israeli airstrikes.
Israel’s announcement came following Tuesday night’s explosion at al-Ahli hospital that spread across the Middle East, and just as Biden began his visit to Israel in hopes to prevent wider conflict in the region. The war began when Hamas militants rampaged communities in southern Israel on October 7.
Claims about who caused the explosion were contradictory. Hamas officials in Gaza quickly blamed an Israeli airstrike, saying nearly 500 people had been killed. Israel denied any involvement and released a series of videos, audio and other information that it said showed the explosion was instead due to misfires of rockets from Islamic Jihad, another militant group operating in Gaza. Islamic Jihad rejected this claim.
The Associated Press has not independently verified any of the claims or evidence published by the parties.
Upon arrival, Biden embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and expressed concern over the suffering of civilians in Gaza. He later said the hospital explosion did not appear to be Israel’s fault.
“From what I saw, it looks like this was done by the other team, not you,” he told Netanyahu in front of the media.
Palestinian rocket fire against Israel resumed shortly before Biden’s arrival, after a 12-hour lull. Israeli strikes on Gaza continued on Wednesday, notably on towns in southern Gaza that Israel had described as “safe zones” for Palestinian civilians.
After the hospital explosion, Jordan canceled a meeting between Biden, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Biden was now only visiting Israel.
The war between Israel and Hamas is “pushing the region to the brink,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told state television.
The Israeli army held a briefing Wednesday morning to explain why it was not responsible for the al-Ahli hospital explosion.
Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said he was not firing in the area when the explosion occurred. And, he added, Israeli radar confirmed that a barrage of rockets had been fired by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad from a nearby cemetery at the time of the explosion, around 6:59 p.m. Independent video showed one of the dam’s rockets falling from the sky, he said.
The failed rocket hit the parking lot outside the hospital. If it had been an airstrike, there would have been a crater there; instead, the flaming blast came from the misfired rocket’s warhead and its unspent propellant, he said.
The Israeli military also released a recording it said was between two Hamas militants discussing the explosion, during which the speakers claimed it was an Islamic Jihad botch.
Hagari said Israeli intelligence would be shared with American and British officials. He also questioned the death toll provided by the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
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Since the start of the war, around 450 rockets fired at Israel by militant groups have landed in Gaza, the Israeli military said.
Hamas called Tuesday’s hospital explosion a “horrible massacre,” saying it was caused by an Israeli strike. Islamic Jihad rejected Israel’s claims, accusing Israel of “trying to avoid responsibility for the brutal massacre it committed.”
The group pointed to Israel’s order to evacuate al-Ahli and reports of a previous strike on the hospital as evidence that the hospital was an Israeli target. He also said the scale of the explosion, the angle of fall of the bomb and the extent of the destruction all pointed to Israel.
The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum, said the hospital, run by the Episcopal Church, had received at least three Israeli military orders to evacuate in the days before the explosion. It was hit by Israeli shelling on Sunday, injuring four staff members, he said. Israel ordered the evacuation of 22 hospitals in northern Gaza last week.
Naoum refused to blame either party for the explosion. “As people in uniform, we are not military experts,” he said. “We just want to show people what’s happening on the ground and hope they come to the conclusion that we’ve had enough of this war.”
The explosion left behind horrific scenes. Hundreds of Palestinians had taken refuge in al-Ahli and other hospitals in Gaza City, hoping they would be spared the bombing after Israel ordered all residents of the city and surrounding areas to evacuate to the south of the Gaza Strip.
On Wednesday morning, the scene of the explosion was littered with charred cars and the ground was blackened by debris. A man sheltering there with his family, Mohammed al-Hayek, said he sat with other men in a hospital stairwell Tuesday night, idling away the hours, but wary to sit in the yard.
He walked away to bring them coffee when the explosion hit.
“When I came back, they were torn to pieces,” he said. Having difficulty speaking, he pointed to where their bodies lay. The stone walls were still spattered with blood. “No one knows anyone,” he manages to say, referring to the difficulty of identifying the victims.
Video posted after the explosion showed the hospital compound littered with torn bodies, many of them young children.
Some 350 victims of the al-Ahli blast were rushed to Gaza City’s main hospital, al-Shifa, which was already overwhelmed with injuries from other strikes, its director, Mohammed, said Abu Selmia. He said doctors performed surgeries – often without anesthesia – on patients lying on the floor.
“We need equipment, we need medicine, we need beds, we need anesthesia, we need everything,” Abu Selmia said. He warned that fuel for the hospital’s generators would run out within hours.
The death toll was controversial, even among those in Gaza. The Health Ministry initially announced 500 deaths, but revised that figure to 471 on Wednesday, without giving details of the deaths. Al-Ahli officials said only that the death toll was in the hundreds. Abu Selmia said he believed the toll was closer to 250.
The Gaza Health Ministry said 3,478 people were killed in Gaza and more than 12,000 injured, with most of the victims being women, children and the elderly. According to health authorities, another 1,300 people in Gaza are buried under the rubble, alive or dead.
More than 1,400 people were killed in Israel, most of them civilians, during the deadly Hamas incursion, which resulted in the taking of around 200 hostages in Gaza. Since then, Gaza militants have launched rockets at cities across Israel every day.
With troops massed along the border, Israel is expected to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, although military officials say no decision has been made.
On Wednesday, a strike on a three-story building in Gaza City killed 40 people and another on a bakery in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed four bakers, witnesses said.
The Israeli military says it is targeting Hamas hideouts, infrastructure and command centers and accuses the militants of hiding among civilians.
“It’s not just that people are hungry. People are at risk of starving,” said Alia Zaki, spokesperson for the World Food Program.
More than a million Palestinians have fled their homes, about half of Gaza’s population, and 60 percent of them are now in the roughly 14-kilometer-long area south of the evacuation zone. , the UN said.
Debre and Nessman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press reporter Amy Teibel in Jerusalem; Samya Kullab in Baghdad; Abby Sewell in Beirut; Samy Magdy and Jack Jeffrey in Cairo; and Ashraf Sweilam in El-Arish, Egypt, contributed to this report.
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