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Israel strikes, ground fighting expand in Gaza as Blinken calls for pause

JERUSALEM — Israeli forces advanced deeper into Gaza on Monday, unleashing devastating airstrikes overnight that left the battered enclave struggling to assess the damage under another communications blackout, while a U.S.-backed humanitarian pause remained out of reach.

The focus of the airstrikes and ground attacks was on the northern half the Strip, which had been cut off by the Israeli military over the weekend in its effort destroy a Hamas militant movement that is deeply embedded in the territory. A month since the Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, the death toll in the Palestinian enclave surpassed 10,000, including more than 4,100 children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

Amid the grim milestone, the Biden administration said it expects more humanitarian aid to begin flowing in within days, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed optimism that there would be a humanitarian pause soon, following his trip through the region. So far, the Israelis have refused to agree, but Blinken told reporters in Ankara, Turkey, that there would soon be movement, as talks were “a work in progress.”

Despite their optimism over a pause, U.S. officials admitted that the Israelis were adamant about keeping the pressure on Hamas, and that with Gaza City encircled, the Israel Defense Forces would take a more aggressive approach that would likely lead to increased casualties — both combatant and civilian — in dense urban warfare. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about private discussions.

“We are focusing on northern Gaza because that is where Hamas has most of its strongholds,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesman, said at a news briefing streamed on social media. The IDF described hitting at least 450 targets overnight and taking over a Hamas compound.

As ground fighting spread Monday, Paltel, the main Palestinian telecommunications provider, said that communication services were gradually coming back online in parts of the Gaza Strip after an outage Sunday. That outage came during some of the war’s most intense strikes on the northern half of the Strip to date. Calls and internet access across the Strip, however, remain unstable and patchy as Israeli bombardments have damaged communication infrastructure.

Internet blackouts keep hitting Gaza. Here’s what to know.

In the meantime, the military renewed calls Monday for Gazans to move to the enclave’s southern half, where it said civilians would be protected — even though Gazans say that they face bombardments no matter where they go and that they cannot safely move around amid the fighting.

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a surgeon at al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza City, said that Sunday night, “the whole hospital was rocked to the core by massive explosions” during the communications blackout. About 50,000 displaced Gazans have taken shelter in the hospital.

Within hours, he said, hundreds of dead and injured people from the nearby Shati refugee camp began to stream in. The casualty count remains unclear and The Washington Post could not independently verify the source of the strikes.

In the darkness, Abu Sitta said, doctors treated people in the car park, as everywhere else was full. As of Monday afternoon, six of the hospital’s operating rooms had closed because of shortages of the fuel needed to keep the generators running amid the total lack of electricity. In the five remaining operating rooms, “there is little we can do,” without electricity or adequate medicines, he said. “We are randomly picking those we can operate on.”

Hazem Joudah, 39, a father of six in the Shati refugee camp, which residents say was heavily hit Sunday night, said he and his immediate family survived but many of his neighbors did not. He told The Post by phone Monday that he saw dead bodies “all around us.”

“They cut off the internet and communication to carry out their attacks,” he said. “Israel deliberately isolates us from the world so that no one will know.”

A spokesperson for the Israeli military declined to comment on the allegations linking the blackouts with the bombing campaigns, but U.S. officials have previously said Israel is behind the communication cuts.

The Gaza Health Ministry also reported a string of strikes overnight against other hospitals, including an attack on Gaza’s only psychiatric hospital, killing eight people. Other strikes killed four people at the Gaza Eye Hospital and four others at the Rantisi Pediatric Hospital.

Hospitals and U.N. schools, however, are the place of last resort for hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans. During previous wars, Gazans could expect relative safety and access to food, water and medicine. But as the fighting stretches into the second month, these sites are overflowing with people, left with only meager supplies of food and water and increasingly close to the fighting.

U.S. diplomats said they are working on expanding the shipments of humanitarian aid to Gaza, which they believe need to be around 600 trucks a day, up from the current daily number of just 100 to 120. The stumbling block, according to officials involved in negotiations, has been setting up an efficient screening system for the massive flow that is secure enough to satisfy the Israelis that military support to Hamas isn’t slipping through.

In talking about his efforts to push for a humanitarian pause, Blinken said it was also important to see progress on the situation of the more than 200 hostages being held by Hamas. “But we also believe that a pause [in fighting] could help advance that proposition as well,” he said.

Many of the families of Israeli hostages favor a continued campaign, believing, unlike the Biden administration, that only sustained military pressure will lead to the hostages’ release.

As part of his Middle East blitz, Blinken also has been pushing back on the government of Iran, which the Biden administration fears could join the fight against Israel, expanding the conflict into a regional war.

According to one U.S. official, however, Iran has been sending signals to the United States that it has no desire to get involved in a regional conflict, and the United States has been sending similar signals. Blinken met Sunday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who then traveled to Iran carrying a message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

Following their meeting in Tehran, Khamenei suggested Iraq could be a go-between.

“As an important country in the region, #Iraq can play a major role in putting political pressure on the U.S. and the occupying regime to stop the massacre of people in Gaza and also in starting a new approach in the Arab and Muslim world,” Khamenei posted on X after the meeting.

Birnbaum reported from Ankara and Harb from London.

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