DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli warplanes struck a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip early Sunday, killing at least 40 people and wounding dozens, health officials said. The strike came as Israel said it would press on with its offensive to crush the territory’s Hamas rulers, despite U.S. appeals for a pause to get aid to desperate civilians.
Israel has rejected the idea of halting its offensive, even for brief humanitarian pauses proposed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his current tour of the region. Gaza’s Health Ministry said more than 9,700 Palestinians have been killed in the territory in nearly a month of war, and that number is likely to rise as Israeli troops advance into dense, urban neighborhoods.
Airstrikes hit the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza overnight, killing at least 40 people and wounding 34 others, the Health Ministry said. It said first responders and residents were still digging through the rubble, hoping to find survivors.
An Associated Press reporter at a nearby hospital saw eight dead children, including a baby, who had been brought in after the strike. A surviving child was led down the hospital corridor by an adult holding her hand, her clothes caked in dust, an expression of shock on her face.
Arafat Abu Mashaia, who lives in the camp, said the Israeli airstrike flattened several multi-story homes where people forced out of other parts of Gaza were sheltering.
“It was a true massacre,” he said early Sunday while standing on the wreckage of destroyed homes. “All here are peaceful people. I challenge anyone who says there were resistance (fighters) here.”
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
The camp, a built-up residential area, is located in the evacuation zone where Israel’s military had urged Palestinian civilians in Gaza to seek refuge as it focuses its military offensive on the north.
Despite such appeals, Israel has continued its bombardment across Gaza, saying it is targeting Hamas fighters and assets everywhere and accusing it of using civilians as human shields. Critics say Israel’s strikes are often disproportionate, considering the large number of women and children killed.
Blinken met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank on Sunday, a day after meeting with Arab foreign ministers in neighboring Jordan.
Abbas, who has had no authority in Gaza since Hamas took over in 2007, said the Palestinian Authority would only assume control of Gaza as part of a “comprehensive political solution” establishing an independent state that would also take in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands Israel seized in the 1967 war.
His remarks seemed to further narrow the already slim options for who would govern Gaza if Israel succeeds in toppling Hamas. The last peace talks with Israel broke down more than a decade ago, and Israel’s government is dominated by opponents of Palestinian statehood.
Blinken had met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, who insisted there could be no temporary cease-fire until all hostages held by Hamas are released.
Arab leaders have called for an immediate cease-fire. But Blinken said that “would simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it did on Oct. 7,” when the group launched a wide-ranging attack from Gaza into southern Israel, triggering the war.
He said humanitarian pauses could be critical in protecting civilians, getting aid in and getting foreign nationals out, “while still enabling Israel to achieve its objective, the defeat of Hamas.”
Swaths of residential neighborhoods in northern Gaza have been leveled in airstrikes. The U.N. office for humanitarian affairs says more than half the remaining residents, estimated at around 300,000, are sheltering in U.N.-run facilities. But deadly Israeli strikes have also repeatedly hit and damaged those shelters.
Israeli planes once again dropped leaflets urging people to head south during a four-hour window on Sunday. Crowds of people could be seen walking down Gaza’s main north-south highway on foot with only what they could carry in their arms, while others led donkey carts.
An Israeli airstrike overnight struck a water well in Tal al-Zatar in northern Gaza, cutting off water for tens of thousands of people, the Hamas-run municipality in the town of Beit Lahia said in a statement early Sunday.
The U.N. said about 1.5 million people in Gaza, or 70% of the population, have fled their homes. Food, water and the fuel needed for generators that power hospitals and other facilities is running out.
The war has stoked tensions across the region, with Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group repeatedly trading fire along the border.
In the occupied West Bank, at least two Palestinians were shot dead during an Israeli arrest raid in Abu Dis, just outside of Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The military said a militant who had set up an armed cell and fired at Israeli forces was killed during the raid.
At least 150 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the start of the war, mainly during violent protests and gun battles during arrest raids.
Thousands of Israelis protested outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem on Saturday, urging him to resign and calling for the return of roughly 240 hostages held by Hamas. Netanyahu has refused to take responsibility for the Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed more than 1,400 people. Ongoing Palestinian rocket fire has forced tens of thousands of people in Israel to evacuate their homes.
In another reflection of widespread anger in Israel, a junior government minister, Amihai Eliyahu, suggested in a radio interview Sunday that Israel could drop an atomic bomb on Gaza. He later walked back the remarks, saying they were “metaphorical.” Netanyahu issued a statement saying the minister’s comments were “not based in reality” and that Israel would continue to try to avoid harming civilians.
Among the Palestinians killed in Gaza are more than 4,800 children, the Gaza Health Ministry said, without providing a breakdown of civilians and fighters. The Israeli military said 29 of its soldiers have died during the ground operation.