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Israeli military hits Gaza's largest refugee camp

Palestinians dig through rubble looking for survivors in a crater following a strike on a refugee camp in Jabalia on the northern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.
Fadi Alwhidi
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AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians dig through rubble looking for survivors in a crater following a strike on a refugee camp in Jabalia on the northern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.

Updated October 31, 2023 at 7:53 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli airstrikes caused significant damage to a large refugee camp in Jabalia, just north of Gaza City, on Tuesday. The Israeli military confirms it was targeting the area, which it says is a Hamas "stronghold," including underground tunnels and a command center.

Photos from the scene showed large craters and other damage at the camp, where teams of people lined up bodies in rows, covered by white sheets. Hamas officials said at least six airstrikes demolished apartment buildings in the residential area.

A precise number of casualties and injuries isn't yet known; initial reports from the health ministry in Gaza said a large number of people were wounded or killed.

The Israeli military said its troops killed dozens of Hamas fighters in western Jabalia, in an operation that included airstrikes. The object was a "military stronghold" used by the commander of a Hamas battalion, the military said.

The operation targeted underground tunnels that lead to the coast, as well as a weapons production facility and rocket launch positions, Israel's military said.

Even before the current war displaced masses of people, Jabalia was the largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians have taken refuge there since 1948 — the year Israel was created — according to the U.N. Palestine refugee agency, or UNRWA. Jabalia is the name of both the camp and a nearby village.

Israeli troops push deeper into Gaza

Israeli forces fought with fighters from the militant group Hamas in central Gaza on Tuesday, as Israel's ground campaign in the embattled territory continued into its fifth day.

According to Palestinian witnesses, Israeli troops have entered Gaza from its north and east. Israeli military officials have reported skirmishes between Hamas fighters and Israeli soldiers. An NPR producer in central Gaza reported the presence of an Israeli tank and bulldozer located south of Gaza City on Salah al-Deen, the main highway that runs north-to-south through the Gaza Strip.

A girl looks on as she stands outside a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A girl looks on as she stands outside a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

All the while, Israel's unrelenting airstrike campaign over the entirety of Gaza has continued. Airstrikes hit at least 300 targets in Gaza during the past day, Israel said Tuesday.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have evacuated from the northern half of Gaza, packing into any available shelter in the south. Schools, hospitals and mosques are all sheltering hundreds of people, and private homes are crowded with dozens or more. In total, 1.4 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes, the U.N. says.

Israeli strikes have been pounding areas near hospitals in northern Gaza, according to UNRWA.

"All 13 hospitals that are still operational in these areas have received repeated Israeli evacuation orders in recent days," the agency said, adding that medical staff, patients and some 117,000 internally displaced persons remain at the hospitals.

The UNRWA said Tuesday three more of its workers were killed by strikes at home with their families in Gaza over the previous 24 hours; in all, 67 of its staff has been killed since Oct. 7.

More than 670,000 displaced people are housed in about 150 UNRWA facilities in Gaza, the agency said, and it has no additional space to house the increasing number of people seeking shelter.

More than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, including more than 3,500 children — a number that exceeded the total number of children killed across the world's conflict zones each year since 2019, according to the humanitarian group Save the Children.

Israel continues to deny that its current operation is a "ground invasion," referring to it only as an "expanded operation" or a "new phase" in the war despite the continual presence of its troops in Gaza. The operations are part of Israel's response to the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, in which some 2,000 fighters flooded across Gaza's border into Israel and killed 1,400 people and kidnapped hundreds of others

On Tuesday, Israel said it killed Nasim Abu Ajina, whom it described as a Hamas fighter who helped lead the Oct. 7 attacks. Abu Ajina "directed" the portion of the assault in two Israeli towns just north of Gaza, a statement from Israel's military said.

No progress on prospects for a cease-fire

Israel will not agree to a cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press conference Monday, because in his view, that would equate to a "surrender" to Hamas.

"That will not happen in Gaza," Netanyahu said. He compared the calls for a Israeli cease-fire to asking the U.S. to cease hostilities after Sept. 11 or Pearl Harbor.

Responding to those comments, the Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., Riyad Mansour, called on the U.N. and the Security Council to "stop the killing."

"There is no justification whatsoever to continue killing children, women, the elderly, the sick," Mansour told NPR, "and to continue collectively punishing them by denying them electricity, water, medicine, food."

The first priority should be to secure a cease-fire, he said, and then work out political issues.

Only a handful of hostages have been freed

In recent days, the number of Hamas hostages reported by Israeli officials has increased, due to what officials describe as complications with identifying foreign citizens. The total number of hostages now stands at 240, Israel says. Five have so far been freed.

At least 10 Americans are being held hostage by Hamas, officials say. And hundreds of American citizens remain trapped in Gaza.

The U.S. has representatives in Doha participating in negotiations over the release of the hostages and the safe exit of Americans from Gaza, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been in "close contact" with Qatari officials in the effort, according to the State Department. Hamas controls the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and has blocked foreign citizens from leaving, officials say.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Tuesday that he was aware of media reports that the gate at Rafah could be opened on Wednesday, but that he couldn't confirm those reports.

"I will say that we are intensely focused on getting the gate open, not just for one-way traffic of trucks coming in, but for American citizens and other foreign nationals" getting out, he said.

Blinken told a Senate committee on Tuesday that about 400 Americans and their families — or about 1,000 people — were trapped in Gaza and about 5,000 people from other countries were also trying to get out.

Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified to the committee on President Biden's supplemental funding request for Israel and Ukraine.

Blinken will return to Israel on Friday for meetings with members of the Israeli government and plans to make other stops in the region, the State Department announced Tuesday evening.

The secretary of State met with leaders in Israel and several Arab states in the days following the Oct. 7 attacks.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Jack Lew's confirmation as ambassador to Israel, a post that had been open since the summer.

Lew was Treasury secretary under President Barack Obama and was director of the Office of Management and Budget. He faced opposition from Senate Republicans because he worked on the controversial Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

The vote was 52-42.

Bill Chappell is based in Washington, D.C. Greg Myre and Elissa Nadworny contributed reporting in Tel Aviv. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.