Gaza air strikes leave at least 48 people dead, health officials say

Israeli strikes killed at least 48 people in southern and central Gaza overnight, half of them women and children, health officials said on Thursday.

The strikes came as European foreign ministers and UN agencies called for a ceasefire, with alarm rising over the worsening humanitarian crisis and potential starvation in the territory.

Tensions were also rising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where three Palestinian gunmen on Thursday opened fire on morning traffic at a motorway checkpoint, killing one person and wounding five others, Israeli police said.

Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, announced on Thursday that the government “will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators”. His comments, delivered in a meeting with US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk, signalled a small sign of progress in ceasefire talks.

Palestinians look at air strike damage in Rafah
At least 48 people have died in overnight strikes in Gaza, officials said (Fatima Shbair/AP)

It was the first Israeli indication of new efforts since negotiations stalled a week ago.

But Mr Gantz, a former military chief and defence minister, repeated his pledge that unless Hamas agrees to release the remaining hostages, Israel will launch a ground offensive into Gaza’s southern-most town, Rafah, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.

More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is crowded into Rafah after fleeing fighting and bombardment elsewhere in the territory.

Israel has said it will evacuate them before attacking, although it is not clear where they would go, with much of the rest of the tiny Mediterranean enclave consumed in combat — raising fears civilian casualties could spiral in an Israeli assault that has already killed more than 29,400 people.

The heads of 13 UN agencies and five other aid groups issued a joint plea for a ceasefire late on Wednesday, warning an attack on Rafah will bring “mass casualties” and could “deal a death blow” to the humanitarian operation bringing aid to Palestinians, which “is already on its knees”.

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip (Leo Correa/AP)

The foreign ministers of 26 European countries on Thursday called for a pause in fighting leading to a longer ceasefire.

They urged Israel not to take military action in Rafah “that would worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation”.

In Thursday’s West Bank shooting, an Israeli man in his 20s was killed and five others injured, including a pregnant woman.

Security forces killed two of the gunmen and detained the third, police said.

Hamas praised the attack in Jerusalem and said it was a “natural response” to Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and raids in the West Bank and called for more attacks until they can achieve a “fully sovereign” Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The militant group did not claim responsibility for the attack.

A mosque was among the buildings hit in air strikes in Rafah
A mosque was among the buildings hit in air strikes in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Meanwhile, a flurry of seven Israeli strikes hit Rafah early on Thursday, one of them flattening a large mosque and devastating much of the surrounding block.

Footage from the scene showed al-Farouq Mosque pancaked to the ground, with its concrete domes tumbled around it and nearby buildings shattered.

Another strike hit a residential home in Rafah sheltering the al-Shaer family, killing at least four people, including a mother and her child.

Strikes in central Gaza overnight killed 44 people, including 14 children and eight women, according to hospital officials.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, after the October 7 attack, in which militants from the territory stormed into southern Israeli communities, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping around 250 people.

The US, Israel’s top ally, has been working with mediators Egypt and Qatar to try to broker a deal for a ceasefire of several months with the release of hostages.

Talks stalled last week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’ demands for any hostage release – a complete end to Israel’s offensive in Gaza and withdrawal of its troops, along with the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

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