Israeli forces killed another Hamas commander on Wednesday in their second strike on Gaza’s largest refugee camp in two days, the military said, as the first group of civilian evacuees from the besieged enclave crossed into Egypt.
Pressing their offensive against Hamas militants, Israel again bombed the densely populated Gaza Strip from land, sea and air in its campaign to destroy the Islamist group after its deadly cross-border rampage into southern Israel on Oct. 7.
Palestinians sifted through rubble in a desperate hunt for people trapped underneath after Wednesday’s Israeli strike on the Jabalia refugee camp, located in the urban sprawl of north Gaza. “It is a massacre,” said one witness of the strike.
There was no immediate word on possible casualties from the second explosion, which came a day after Palestinian health officials said an Israeli air strike had killed about 50 people and wounded 150 there.
The Israeli military later issued a statement saying its fighter jets had struck a Hamas command and control complex in Jabalia “based on precise intelligence”, killing the head of the Islamist group’s anti-tank missile unit, Muhammad A’sar.
“Hamas deliberately builds its terror infrastructure under, around and within civilian buildings, intentionally endangering Gazan civilians,” the statement said.
Israel has said Tuesday’s strike on the same camp killed Ibrahim Biari, who it said was a ringleader of what it called the “murderous terror attack” on Oct. 7.
The people being evacuated to Egypt had been trapped in Gaza since the start of the war more than three weeks ago. They were driven through the Rafah border crossing and underwent security checks, officials said.
Dr Fathi Abu al-Hassan, a U.S. passport holder, described hellish conditions inside Gaza without water, food or shelter.
“We open our eyes on dead people and we close our eyes on dead people,” he said while waiting to cross into Egypt.
“If this happened in any other country… even in the desert, (people) will combine together to (help) us,” he said.
Wednesday’s evacuees included at least 320 of 500 on an initial list of foreign passport holders as well as dozens of severely injured Gazans, Egyptian sources and a Palestinian official said, the first beneficiaries of the deal brokered between Egypt, Israel and Hamas.
At least 49 medical evacuees had arrived in Egypt, the governor of Egypt’s Sinai province told reporters later.
Nahed Abu Taeema, director of Gaza’s Nasser Hospital, told Reuters 19 critically injured patients from his hospital would be among the evacuees as they required “advanced surgeries that can’t be done here because of the lack of capabilities, especially women and children”.
Gaza border officials said the frontier would reopen on Thursday to let out more people on a list of foreign passport holders. A diplomatic source briefed on Egyptian plans said some 7,500 foreign passport holders would be evacuated from Gaza over the course of about two weeks.
Israel sent ground forces into Hamas-ruled Gaza late last week after weeks of air and artillery strikes in retaliation for the surprise Hamas attack in which 1,400 Israelis, mainly civilians, were killed in a single day, Israeli officials say.
The Gaza health ministry says at least 8,796 Palestinians in the narrow coastal enclave, including 3,648 children, have been killed by Israeli strikes since Oct. 7.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Wednesday Washington did not believe Hamas could be involved in the future governance of Gaza when the war is over.
Kirby also said that despite the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, the United States did not believe now was the time for a general ceasefire, but that humanitarian pauses in hostilities were necessary.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Israel and Jordan on Friday, the State Department said. His trip will include talks with Netanyahu for an update of Israel’s military objectives, it said.
Despite the breakthrough on the humanitarian front, Israeli war planes, naval boats and artillery pounded Gaza on Wednesday, inflicting scores more casualties among the civilian population, Palestinian residents said.
Hospitals struggled to cope amid shutdowns forced by shortages in fuel, which Israel has refused to let humanitarian convoys take into the shattered enclave citing concern it would be diverted to Hamas fighters.
Medical student Ezzedine Lulu, working at Al Shifa hospital in Gaza, filmed himself walking through corridors filled with sleeping children sheltering from the bombardment.
“I can heal the wounds, I can stop the bleeding, I cannot heal the cold of these children’s bodies. I see them shaking while they are sleeping, they have nothing to cover themselves with. Winter is coming … Stop the inhumanity,” he said.
The desperate humanitarian conditions have caused concern across the world as food, fuel, drinking water and medicine run short.
Jordan, one of a handful of Arab states to have normalised relations with Israel, said on Wednesday it was pulling out its ambassador from Tel Aviv until Israel ended its assault on Gaza.
A Western official said the evacuation deal was not linked to other issues, such as the release of about 240 hostages held by Hamas since the Oct. 7 assault, or a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting which many countries have called for but which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected.
Fifteen Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza fighting on Tuesday, the military said after next-of-kin had been notified, its biggest one-day loss since the start of the offensive. The military said one more soldier was killed on Wednesday.
“We are in a tough war,” Netanyahu said. “I promise to all citizens of Israel: We will get the job done. We will press ahead until victory.”
Cross-border Hamas rocket fire continued on Wednesday, with warning sirens sounding in southern Israel communities as well as the Mediterranean port cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.
The violence – the worst in many years of sporadic warfare – erupted at a time when Palestinian aspirations for an independent state and an end to Israel’s occupation have little prospect of being fulfilled.
Peace talks are now a distant memory and Netanyahu’s right-wing government has expanded Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israel sees Hamas, which has vowed to destroy the Jewish state, as an existential threat.