The US’s top diplomat has said “far too many Palestinians” are being killed in Israel’s war against Hamas and more should be done to protect civilians, heightening international pressure on Israel over the death toll in Gaza.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken was speaking amid reports of Israeli strikes on hospitals in the north of the coastal enclave, where thousands of Palestinians have been sheltering from intense fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.
Speaking in India, Blinken said the US wanted to do “everything possible” to prevent harm to Palestinians and increase aid.
“Much more needs to be done to protect civilians and to make sure that humanitarian assistance reaches them,” he told reporters. “Far too many Palestinians have been killed: far too many have suffered these past weeks.”
His comments point to increasing friction between Israel and the US, its closest ally, over the Jewish state’s prosecution of the war. Washington has been pressing for more humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow in larger amounts of aid and facilitate efforts to release Israeli hostages.
The US has also outlined a vision for postwar Gaza that differs sharply from that of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. It wants the Palestinian Authority, a rival of Hamas, to take over the administration of Gaza, and Israel to end its 16-year blockade of the strip that has impoverished Palestinians without weakening Hamas.
But Netanyahu’s recent comments suggest their views diverge. Israeli media quoted the prime minister as telling a group of regional leaders from southern Israel on Friday that at the end of the war “there will be total Israeli security control over the Gaza strip, including its full demilitarisation”.
A US official based in the Middle East said Washington’s policymakers were also frustrated by Netanyahu’s focus on Israel’s domestic politics while leaving them to deal with the regional fallout.
“Every conversation starts with Hamas, and ends with Hamas,” the person said. “It’s unclear if [the Israelis] acknowledge that their [actions] in the West Bank have broader repercussions.”
In addition, Israeli forces continue to use heavy bombs in Gaza, despite indicating to Washington that they would turn to more precision munitions as ground forces advanced into the city. “There is specific [US] guidance around this that continues to be repeated,” the person said.
At the same time, Israel is facing further scrutiny over its attacks on civilian infrastructure in Gaza. Palestinian officials said Israeli air strikes on Friday had hit hospitals and a school, causing several deaths. They said missiles had landed in the courtyard of al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest, which has become a key sanctuary for thousands of people trying to escape the bombing.
A statement by the Palestinian health ministry said Israeli forces had targeted al-Shifa “five times in a row” and were still hitting the area.
It said they were also besieging the al-Rantisi and al-Nasr children’s hospitals, “exposing the lives of thousands of patients, medical staff and displaced people to certain death due to hunger, thirst and direct bombardment”. The ministry said 11,078 Palestinians had been killed in Israel’s bombardment of the strip, an increase of 260 deaths from the figure a day earlier.
Israel says the al-Shifa hospital sits atop a Hamas command centre and a dense network of underground tunnels used by the militant group. It has accused the organisation of using people in the hospital and other civilian infrastructure as human shields.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said hospitals in Gaza have “reached a point of no return”, risking the lives of thousands of people.
“Children’s hospitals have not been spared . . . the violence, including al-Nasr hospital, heavily damaged by the hostilities, and al-Rantisi hospital, which had to cease its operations,” it said.
The ICRC said its staff attempting to deliver medical supplies had witnessed “horrendous” scenes “that have now gotten worse due to sharpened hostilities” and described the destruction as “becoming unbearable”.
“The rules of war are clear. Hospitals are specially protected facilities under international humanitarian law,” the ICRC said.
Asked about the attacks on al-Shifa and al-Rantisi, Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, said Israeli troops were closing in on hospitals in northern Gaza used by Hamas “but we’re very aware of the dynamic and the sensitivity” of the installations.
Hecht said the IDF “does not fire on hospitals”. “If we see Hamas terrorists firing from [them], we’ll do what we need to do,” he said.
He added: “Hamas is operating from within the hospitals — it would be easier if [it] just left [them].”
Hecht also said Israel had expanded the humanitarian corridor it has established to enable people to flee south from 9am till 4pm each day. It had also opened a second route, he said, along the Al Rashid coastal road, to supplement the main route down the north-south Salah ad-Din Road through Gaza.
Israel declared war on Hamas after the group launched a bloody assault on the south of the country, killing more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials, and taking 240 hostage.
Israel-Hamas war: 2-minute briefing
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The Israeli military has an informal doctrine of moving quickly in conflicts to outpace international opposition; it aims to achieve a large proportion of its battlefield goals before diplomatic pressure forces a ceasefire or pause.
In Gaza, it has been forced to move more slowly because of the threat from tunnels, and the limited impact aerial bombardment has had in neutralising that threat. The offensive is also far larger than previous assaults against Hamas, and Israeli forces have gone deeper into the strip as Netanyahu has warned of a long war.
The number killed in Gaza is far higher than the combined death toll of the three previous wars Israel has fought against Hamas.
This week, UN secretary-general António Guterres said Gaza was becoming a “graveyard for children”.