Israel strikes 2 homes, killing more than 90 Palestinians as troops expand south Gaza offensive

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — More than 90 Palestinians, including dozens from an extended family, were killed in Israeli airstrikes on two homes, rescuers and hospital officials said Saturday, a day after the U.N. chief warned again that nowhere is safe in Gaza and that Israel’s ongoing offensive is creating “massive obstacles” to the distribution of humanitarian aid.

Also Saturday, the Israeli military said troops arrested hundreds of alleged militants in Gaza over the past week and transferred more than 200 of them to Israel for further interrogation, providing rare details on a controversial policy of mass roundups of Palestinian men. The army said more than 700 people with alleged ties to the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have so far been sent to Israeli lockups.

Israel declared war after Hamas gunmen stormed across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages. More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s war to destroy Hamas and more than 53,000 have been wounded, according to health officials in Gaza, a besieged territory ruled by the Islamic militant group for the past 16 years.

Despite mounting international calls for a cease-fire, Israel has vowed to keep up the fight until Hamas is destroyed and removed from power in Gaza and all the hostages are freed. The Biden administration has shielded Israel in the diplomatic arena. On Friday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a watered-down resolution that calls for immediately speeding up aid deliveries to desperate civilians in Gaza, but not for a cease-fire.

On Friday, airstrikes flattened two homes, one in Gaza City and the other in the urban refugee camp of Nuseirat in the center of the territory.

The Gaza City strike killed 76 people from the al-Mughrabi family, making it one of the deadliest of the war, said Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense department. He provided the names of 16 heads of households within the family, and said the dead included women and children.

Among those killed were Issam al-Mughrabi, a veteran employee of U.N. Development Program, his wife, and their five children.

“The loss of Issam and his family has deeply affected us all. The U.N. and civilians in Gaza are not a target,” said Achim Steiner, the head of the agency. “This war must end.”

Later Friday, a strike pulverized the Nuseirat home of Mohammed Khalifa, a local TV journalist, killing him and at least 14 others, according to officials at the nearby Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital where the bodies were taken. Mourners held funeral prayers Saturday in the hospital’s courtyard while rescue teams continued to search for survivors. The legs of at least two bodies were seen under what appeared to be a collapsed roof.

Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, citing the militants’ use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel has launched thousands of airstrikes since Oct. 7, and has largely refrained from commenting on specific attacks, including discussing the intended target.

Israel’s offensive has been one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history, displacing nearly 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and leveling wide swaths of the tiny coastal enclave. More than half a million people in Gaza — a quarter of the population — are starving, according to a report this week from the United Nations and other agencies.

The military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said late Friday that forces are widening the ground offensive “to additional areas of the strip, with a focus on the south.” He said operations were also continuing in the northern half of Gaza, the initial focus of Israel’s ground offensive. The army said that it carried out airstrikes against Hamas fighters in several locations of Gaza City.

The army statement on detentions followed earlier Palestinian reports of large-scale roundups of teenage boys and men from homes, shelters and hospitals in northern Gaza where ground troops have established firmer control. Some of the released detainees have said they were stripped to their underwear, beaten and held for days with minimal water.

The military has denied abuse allegations and said those without links to militants were quickly released.

Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas militants, including about 2,000 in the past three weeks, but has not presented evidence. It says 139 of its soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive.

In the aftermath of the U.N. resolution, it was not immediately clear how and when aid deliveries would accelerate. Currently, trucks enter through two crossings — Rafah on the border with Egypt and Kerem Shalom on the border with Israel. Both crossings were closed Saturday by mutual agreement between Israel, Egypt and the United Nations, Israeli officials said.

Ahead of the Security Council vote, the U.S. negotiated the removal of language that would have given the U.N. authority to inspect aid going into Gaza, something Israel says it must continue to do to ensure material does not reach Hamas.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday that it’s a mistake to measure the effectiveness of the humanitarian operation by the number of trucks.

“The real problem is that the way Israel is conducting this offensive is creating massive obstacles to the distribution of humanitarian aid inside Gaza,” he said. He said the prerequisites for an effective aid operation don’t exist — security, staff that can work in safety, logistical capacity especially trucks, and the resumption of commercial activity.

Guterres reiterated his longstanding call for a humanitarian cease-fire. He expressed hope that the resolution may help this happen but said “much more is needed immediately” to end the ongoing “nightmare” for the people in Gaza.

The United States had won the removal of a tougher call for an “urgent suspension of hostilities” between Israel and Hamas. It abstained in the vote, as did Russia, which wanted the stronger language.

Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, sharply criticized the U.N. for its failure to condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. The U.S. vetoed a resolution in October that would have included a condemnation because it didn’t also underline Israel’s right to self-defense.

Hamas said the U.N. resolution should have demanded an immediate halt to Israel’s offensive, and it blamed the United States for pushing “to empty the resolution of its essence” before Friday’s Security Council vote.